The East Asian Peace

East Asia's stable, decades-long peace is surprising given the region's bloodly history in the mid-20th century. How did this come about, and will it last?
For 35 years East Asia was the world's bloodiest battlefield, but since 1980 the region has remained almost entirely peaceful.

What caused the "East Asia Peace," and what might it have to teach other intractible conflict zones?
"East Asia was host to 80% of the world's conflict zones from 1946 to 1979, and then 6.2% in the 1980's," says Stein Tønnesson, a historian and researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Since 1990 that number has shrunk to under 2%. In 2015 it held at 1.5%. How did it happen that the world's worst regional battlefield become one of the globe's most peaceful regions?

There was a book written in 1945 by a Trotskyist named Harold Isaacs called No Peace For Asia! It warned Westerners, fresh off the victory in WWII, not to think this peace would benefit East Asia – he predicted a Chinese civil war, a divided Korea, conflict in Vietnam and French Indochina (which included Laos and Cambodia) and an increased role for Indonesia. While he was at it, he predicted the Indian-Pakistani partition.

Not a terrible forecast, as they go.
1946 - 1949
Chinese Civil War
1950 - 1953
Korean War
1946 - 1954
First Indochina War
1954 - 1958
A brief period of peace, known as the "short pieace of East Asia."
The Korean War, which preceeded the 'short peace,' was an attempt by North Korea to take South Korea with support from the USSR. But then the Americans intervened, landed on the country's west coast and drove the North Koreans back to the Chinese border. The war had two major ravagings: from north to south and then from south to north. Eventually Mao brought a huge Chinese army and the worst phase of the fighting began, with reports of waves upon waves of soldiers, of sending platoon after platoon and the death count was staggering. The war ended in a stalemate with a declared ceasefire in 1953, but there is no formal peace agreement even today.

The First Indochina War lasted for nearly a decade, and was fought between the colonial French government and nationalist forces led by Việt Minh. It resulted in the exit of the French from the territory, the independence of Laos and Cambodia and the splitting of Vietnam into two states: North and South Vietnam. A 'short peace' lasted after that for four years.

There were five principles of the 'short peace,' including mutual respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence. It didn't last long, but these principles would go on to inform Chinese foreign policy.

The 'short peace' of ended with the Second Indochina War, which was known in America as the Vietnam War and in Vietnam as as the American War. Lasting from 1959 to 1975, it was one of the bloodiest conflicts since WWII. While it dominated the region for the next fifteen years, there were some smaller skirmishes in nearby countries. Afterwards there was Vietnam-Chinese Border War in 1979, when Vietnam entered Cambodia and China mounted a sharp response. The hostilities lasted for five weeks but left a high death toll, somewhere between 20-40,000 soldiers dead, many of them quite young.

If the USSR and the US intervened it could have become another massive conflict, but this wasn't the case. An eventual Third Indochina War emerged, particularly in Cambodia and Laos, but it wasn't comparable to the others in scale. Elements of that war lasted until the late 1980's, but fighting dropped off after 1979.

Conflicts in other parts of the world flared up, particularly in West Asia, but East Asia calmed down significantly. In the 1980's, attention turned to the Iran-Iraq war, the Eritrea-Ethiopia war and the conflict in Afghanistan. Only Afghanistan, especially towards the end of the decade, could compare with East Asia in terms of devastation.

But why was 1979 the turning point for the Asia continent?

Pivoting Away From War

One major factor in the pivot in East Asia from war to peace was the amount of change taking place in China (and in Sino-American relations).

China supported Vietnam against France, and then North Vietnam against the Americans. It also contributed to the war in Myanmar, when many Chinese came in as 'volunteers' from the mid-sixties until 1989. Generally speaking it was active militarily, but there were a number of internal catastrophies that affected its ability to intervene in the region.

Take the Great Leap Forward, an experiment in industrialization that came at the cost of agriculture, cost maybe 40 million lives. Then Mao's Cultural Revolution left its own trail of damage, leaving China tired of conflict and war. The Communist leadership wanted new policy, and new leader Deng Xiaoping came in and spearheaded economic reforms and starting the next phase in the nation's foreign policy.

Deng reformed the military, and other than a few engagements (the battles at the Vietnamese border, also skirmishes in the South China Sea in March 1988) it hasn't been at war with any other country since then. This lack of direct military force is astounding given a power like China. Other major powers and superpowers, if you compare America, France, the UK or Russia, use force relatively often.

This isn't because of a lack of rivals – Japan is no friend in particular to China. They just don't typically use force against each other. But while China had faced off against both Japan and America earlier in the century, Deng still tried to learn a lot from both countries. He then used that knowledge to launch a number of reforms.

Another major factor was the major decolonization in the region, taking place from 1945-1984. Siam (known as Thailand today) was the only kingdom in Southeast Asia that hadn't been colonized by Europe, and the other nations (particularly in Indochina) had sought their independence through war.

The resulting conflicts lead to a numer of agreements that broke down until, in 1991, a Cambodian peace process was signed in Paris that became a model of solid conflict resolution agreements. A coalition government was made instead of separating the country into two (like had happened in Vietnam), and a strong UN force was brought in to keep eace during elections.

The result wasn't perfect and a dictatorship was elected, but there hasn't been war in Cambodia since then (with the exception of ongoing conflict with the ousted Khmer Rouge regime, which led to violence until the 1990's).

The stabilization of independence movements, and decreased aggression from China, led to countries like Vientam to open up and make relations with China, America and then the world. The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) was developed, and this was a huge step forward for regional integration.

Deng's position to stop providing support to Communist rebels led to the end of the conflict in Myanmar in 1989, when the rebels fled to China where they've been since. Changes in US strategic focus were also important, as until the 1970's it was focused on stopping Communist expansion (especially in Korea and Vietnam). They had exported a great many weapons to that end, and this contributed tot he intensity of the conflicts. The late 1970's, though, was China and the US become some sort of ally to each other. They started, collectively, worrying more about Afghanistan and Iran.

But the final factor was the shift, in one country after the other, that placed a priority (on broad leadership levels) on figuring out what had to be done to achieve economic growth. This led to whatTønnesson and his colleages call the developmental peace.

The Developmental Peace

It was Japan and not China that jumpstarted the developmental peace. Their strategy was less turning swords into ploushares than turning figher planes into trains and skyscrapers.

Japan embraced its defeat in WWII, Tønnesson says. They made the best of no longer being a great military power and decided to scrap that vision in favour of relying on American protection. This freed them up to concentrate on economic development.

This was codified in Article 9 of the new Japanese constitution. It stipulated that Japan has no right to have an army nor to wage war, and this article is still remains in force togday (though recent Prime Ministers have considered changing it).

The main architect of this policy was an old aristocratic diplomat who had been very pro-British and therefore did not compromise himself with military activity during the war. In spite of this he remained close to the emperor and was chosen to be Prime Minister in the post-war era. His name was Yoshida Shigeru, who was said to have claimed that having been beaten, and not having a single soldier left on their hands, it was a fine opportunity to "renounce war for all time."

While this policy was received positively in the US after the war, the American government urged Japan to abandon it during the Korean War. Japan refused. Yoshida promised support, particularly through the production of food, but the country stood on the sidelines and became rich through selling supplies.

There were also historical regions, as Japan had colonized Korea in the early 20th century. There was some cultural baggage still to be worked through.

The same dynamic was repeated during the Vietnam war: Japan refused to send troops but took advantage of new market opportunities opened up by the conflict.

And other countries started seeing Japan as a success story. Their products had been considered low-quality, but the 1960's saw the country become a producer of high-quality goods that could demand advantageous market prices. Their GDP soared, and this did this without military power.

Other nations in the region started to copy Japan, and eventually Deng Xiaoping himself took notice. Developmental peace theorists claim that the process went as follows:

There has to be a major disruption in a society, and the leadership has to acknowledge this crisis. In Japan's case this was obvious: Tokyo was bombed and two atomic weapons had been dropped.
A Shift In Priority
In response to this crisis, there has to be a shift in policy priorities. In Japan's case, this involved a step back from ideological narratives and towards economic priorities and an 'economy first' policy.
Accommodation of Other Powers
Once the decision is made to step down from military pressure in favour of economic development, the next step is to make accomodations to other powers, possibly former enemies, in the name of economic growth.

Japan accomodated the will of the United States, and by playing nice got access to the era's best technologies, the most capital and the protection of the strongest military. They had enough independence to not get sucked into the Korean and Vietnam wars, and swallowed their pride in the name of advancement.

Deng Xiaoping followed a similar strategy when he went to America to learn.
Prioritizing Peace With Neighbours
The next step is realizing that being at war, especially with nearby states, is costly. If you truly prioritize the economy, then you'll need internal stability.

One way to achieve this stability is though, as Japan did, institutions and functional democracy. Another way is through effective repression and authoritarian policies. Japan's intelligence services, utilized some of these strategies through their penetration of labour and Communist movements, but not to the degree used by China and other neighbouring countries.
This is perhaps one of the largest questions of developmental peace theory: how to respond when brutally authoritarian measures turn out to be the building blocks of regional peace.

If peace is prioritized, and achieved, how should we think about the cost?

The Price of Negative Peace

Johan Galtung, the founder of peace and conflict studies, divides peace into two types: positive peace and negative peace. Negative peace is defined by the absence of war: the classic example is a ceasefire that might not resolve the issues that led to the conflict in the first place. Or a peace that was enforced by a dictator who uses atrocities against their own people.

Positive peace, on the other hand, refers to the absence of direct and structural violence. So working towards positive peace isn't just about whether anyone is firing any guns – it's also about restructuring society so the grievances or injustices leading to the war are resolved.

The East Asian Peace, as you can imagine, is negative. And it wasn't particularly nice.

In Indonesia, the transition to peace was made through the killing of 500,000 Communists (or perceived Communists). This was seen as a solid way to gain stability and set an example to other extremists. This led to the ascension of president Suharto, who launched a brutal growth-and-stability campaign that used repression as one of its main tactics. His anti-Communist stance won him an alliance with the US despite his transition into a dictator.

Singapore parted ways with Malaysia in 1965, and around the same time Taiwan decided to stop focusing on taking back Mainland China. They both used these transitions to focus on creating an 'economic' miracle on par with Japan.

Mahathir bin Mohamad became president of Malaysia and pushed for a narrative saying that the West was warlike and uncivilized, and that Asians had to live up to their history and pursue their goals through arbitration and peace. Even though he didn't support Singaporean independence, when it was clear that the deal was done he claimed that his support was the 'civilized' thing to do.

But he still didn't prove particularly democratic: he used old security laws to punish enemies, and in particularly the opposition.

Vietnam launched a series of policies called Đổi Mới, which saw them pull ou tof Cambodia in 1986 and slowly restart friendly diplomatic relations with its neighbours (and then everyone else).

The main exception was Kim family in North Korea, but even Kim Jong-un has recently been seen making steps towards disarmament or greater integration with the global community. How this rapproachment will continue remains to be seen.

Countries that opted for more liberal transition schemes, like Thailand, the Philippines and Myanmar, find themselves more involved in conflict than they would like. Their armies are not under civilian control, and they have not enjoyed as many benefits of the developmental peace yet. Tønnesson argues that they perhaps haven't gone through the key shift in priorities yet.
And so peace is primarily talked about in terms of power, trade, democracy, discourse, law and norms and so on but, although the negative peace holds (for now), many Asian countries remain on a tense, aggressive footing with each other.

While interstate war is absent, armed conflict still exists. There are still stockloads of weapons, risks of threat and encroachment, internal repressions and civil firefights. These are in no way entirely just or harmonious societies.

China had recently placed more missiles on the coast, and the Taiwanese know that they would lose a war quickly without immediate American intervention. This kind of high-alert war game is something new.

China has also been using major force to keep Uyghur population in Xinjiang, where anti-Chinese sentiment is resultingly high but there's no possibility to fight back because the repressions are so total. The model for internal unity seems to be built on repression and deterrence.

And yet.

Tønnesson says that the peace, as fraught as it is, is still incredibly valuable. He doesn't like to call negative peace negative as if it's a bad thing. Living without war is important in itself, regardless of almost anything else that happens. Less people are killing each other, and this has to be the start.

With the exception of World War Two, perhaps every other conflict has made the local situation worse: avoiding war is important for everyone. Either rebels lose and make things miserable, or they win and create terrifying regimes.

Some call these internal factors structural violence and he's against this terminology: he uses words like repression and dictatorship instead, because he finds words like violence to legitimize violence in response.

For him, peace is a continuum. Giving a no to war will give you a low-quality peace. You start with saying no to war, and then to armed conflicts, and then to arms, to murders, to violence. Then you start saying yes to justice, to equality, to human security and democracy and finally to a high-quality peace. Negative peace, he argues, isn't the opposite to positive peace. It's the first step there, and we need to respect it when it's the only thing holding back an entire regions' worth of armies out to kill each other.

If we compare the repressive Asian governments to other governments, some interesting figures reveal themselves. Out of the 50 cities with the highest amounts of homicides in 2018, 3 are in Africa and 47 in the Americas. The negotiated peace in Guatemala was followed by a spike in murders. This hasn't happened in Asia. This should matter.

If we look at life expectancy at birth, every country has seen a dramatic increase, with Cambodia making the leap from 33 to 68. This is huge.

While many people have legitimate greivances for possibly rising up against their governments, Tønnesson also wants to draw attention to the main dilemma involved in armed rebellions: they can start with good intentions, but they often create the conditions for disaster. By not rebelling against the system, though, you accept that you may be controlled, oppressed, you may have increased dangers if you belong to a vulnerable group, you have a higher risk of prison. But your life expectancy is higher. This is the dilemma.
Uyghur boy | yuan.muye | flickr
Another legitimate question to ask: will this fragile peace last? Given how much has been sacrificed for the sake of this peace, it pays to spend a few moments looking towards the future.

There are currently three countries in East Asia that still have civil wars: Myanmar, Philippines and Thailand. They have been studied extensively, and he won't be going into the data today.

A bigger question is whether or not China will resort to force, either in these conflicts or along emerging lines of tension in the South China Sea. The non-intervention principle has arguably been weakened though concepts like the responsibility to protect (R2B), which has been used by major powers to intervene to defend their international interests. And there are growing interests forming abroad, especially with the extensive Belts and Roads Initiative (BRI).

Some may say trade war may precede armed conflict. Others say that China will first violate the Law of the Sea. Still others say that Japan may violate or change its constitution, disrupting the balance and adding an entire new military element. China's current Secretary, Xi Jinping, has been consolidating his power as a core leader, and nearby Russia is setting precidents on the use of force to achieve its goals.

Arguments against the likelihood of war is the lack of direct war experience among the People's Liberation Army (PLA, the Chinese standing army). It still follows the doctrine of peaceful development and has a dependence on export markets. The scope of the BRI demands international cooperation, and this is perhaps one of the largest legacies of the developmental peace. Thus far, China has been able to exert its influence using economics and trade.

Of course, the American and Japanese alliance is still in force. Plus the Chinese may have learned from American history that military interventions often fail. That, and war is expensive and nuclear deterrence may still work.

Much of the anxiety over peace in East Asia lies in the sheer amount of unknowns. But if there's anything that Tønnesson wants to leave us with, it's that life matters. That even if the peace was built on a growing pile of lost freedoms, it may be the only thing preventing a growing pile of bones.
Stein Tønnesson is a historian at the Peace Research Institue Oslo (PRIO). He served as PRIO's director from 2001-2009.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and peacebuilding practitioner.
He studied at PRIO in 2018.
Banner photo by Morning Calm on Flickr.
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Further Reading
Peace by Development
Tønnesson, Stein. (2017).
in E. Bjarnegård and J. Kreutz, eds. Debating the East Asian Peace. Copenhagen: NIAS Press: 55–77.
The East Asian Peace:
Will it Last?
E. Bjarnegård, K. Eck, H. Guthrey,
J. Kreutz, E. Melander, I. Svensson,
S. Tønnesson (2017).
in E. Bjarnegård and J. Kreutz, eds. Debating the East Asian Peace. Copenhagen: NIAS Press: 281–296.