Rising Tensions in East Asia?

October 24, 2014

What are the consequences of Asia’s rise for transatlantic relations? What are the opportunities for increased U.S. and European political coordination and risks of economic competition in Asia? Can the deep-seated, historical antagonisms between China, Japan, and South Korea be addressed using our knowledge of Germany’s experience with reconciliation? What is the role of leadership in dealing with these challenges? These were driving questions for the conference “Rising Tensions in East Asia? A Transatlantic Perspective” that was jointly hosted by the American-German Institute (AGI) and Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) on October 24, 2014.

Panel I: Regional Economic Challenges and Opportunities

The first panel addressed regional economic challenges and opportunities in East Asia, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Panelists discussed the potential for a more integrated Asian community and the U.S. and European role in supporting these regional processes. Because economic integration is market-driven, the massive pool of existing agreements revolving around ASEAN includes limited government intervention. TPP might become a game changer in this respect, even though it excludes the major economic player China. Furthermore, the prospects of the TPP agreement depend on Japan’s willingness to make substantial compromises. Also, the current negotiations about RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) between ASEAN+6 (Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand) threaten to confirm the status quo of no U.S. participation in the regional free trade agreements.

Panelists further explained how China’s economic rise allowed the EU and the U.S. to benefit from this growth. The prospects of the world’s largest free trade areas generate high incentives for agreements on both sides. However, with China not included in the negotiations, TPP could also be perceived as a multilateral attempt to counterbalance China’s economic power. China, on the other hand, has an interest in economic diplomacy, as it could continue its growth through cooperation with other global powers. Moreover, Germany has an interest in extended economic partnerships with China rather than political cooperation. Germany and other European nations find themselves in an intermediate position between the established Anglo-Saxon institutional system and the emerging system in East Asia. With more regional institutions, the regional competition and the options for larger profits increase.


View the Presentations:
Bill Brooks, Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, SAIS



Panel II: The Burden of the Past in East Asian Relations

The second panel of the day discussed the burden of the past in East Asian relations, which the panelists agreed centers on Japanese revisionism over several issues related to wartime atrocities, as well as long-standing territorial disputes. The approach by Japan may have a variety of causes—not only pressure from nationalist hardliners on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but also Abe’s own vision of national pride as a method to link society and government, and mobilize it toward economic growth. Meanwhile, the burden for reconciliation lies not only with Japan, but also with South Korea and China. The two would also have to look at whether their fixation on highlighting their role as victims and holding present-day Japan culpable for past offenses have been effective and appropriate. South Korea has at times been seen as oversensitive, finding inadequate Japanese overtures and thus eroding support for reconciliation even among Japanese moderates, while China insists on putting a Sino-centrist spin on its view of history. However, these historical issues are also instrumentalized by all sides as tools for carrying out a larger competition for power in a changing regional and global order.

The result is a “paradox” of growing economic interdependence and declining trust and security cooperation. As another panelist later explained, judging from the experience of Germany and Europe, the countries need to build a regional community in order to reassure one another and overcome a cycle of containment and balancing power. Germany itself could act as a qualified mediator between the parties. But even more necessary is an approach to reconciliation that is not top-down and not just at the diplomatic level. Rather, a wider scope of actors must be at the helm of the process, including civil society and the corporate sector, which was a successful participant in Europe’s post-war reconciliation.


View the Presentations:
Seiko Mimaki, Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies, SAIS



Keynote Speech

Ambassador Volker Stanzel, former Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Japan and the People’s Republic of China, analyzed the rising tensions in Asia from a transatlantic perspective. He made clear that we should not be afraid of the consequences of the afore-mentioned changes in Asia. Rather, the U.S. should be afraid of not seizing chances of cooperation and integration, if it fails to manage the tensions. For him, peace in East Asia depends on three factors: a continued U.S. role in building and keeping stability in the region; a gradual economic and political integration of Southeast Asia; and China as an emerging power.

It is the continuous misperception of China that poses a threat to peace, not China’s development itself. A Chinese hegemony does not guarantee peace in itself since its democratic neighbors have interests in maintaining their independence, as well as their social values and norms. While the U.S. gradually manages to include a multitude of allies and partners in negotiations until all can agree on an arrangement that all can benefit from, China presents a more immediate, robust leadership. Despite a societal pluralization and an economic liberalization, China’s political and social conditions are far from the social contract its neighboring countries achieved. China does not demonstrate a clear goal of reconciliation with Japan. With its South Asian neighbors preferring friendship with the U.S., it has few regional or international partners.

Bearing their mutual dependence in mind, Europe and the U.S. should have strong interests in preventing these tensions from gestating into armed conflicts. Europe and the U.S. face similar challenges in East Asia: they need to encourage China to rise to power peacefully, help resolve conflicts between Japan and China, coordinate regional integration, and develop institutions that support security and economic growth.


View the Presentation:
Ambassador Volker Stanzel, former Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Japan and the People’s Republic of China


Panel III: The Role of Leadership in Resolving Conflict

The third and final expert panel, which delved into the role of leadership in resolving conflict in Northeast Asia, provided a spectrum of detailed insights into the domestic political dynamics behind both promoting and undoing reconciliation. In China, a major obstacle to reconciliation is the Communist Party’s instrumentalization of past humiliations to highlight, by contrast, its own achievements of “national rejuvenation.” That includes an exaggerated emphasis on Japan’s wartime transgressions, its revisionist practices, and perceived militarism.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s rise from abject poverty to prosperity has created a sentiment of wanting to rectify historical wrongs of its own. The role of history is exacerbated by the two-pronged polarization of the Korean electorate between East and West as well as between conservative and liberal. The Republic’s democratic system has at times served to ameliorate conflicts, but can also act as a tinderbox. If South Korea’s electoral landscape changes, it could improve Japanese-Korean issues. Japan faces domestic polarization of its own: on one hand about who is to blame for costly shortcomings in the aftermath of the war and the lack of reconciliation; on the other hand about how to act in the face of Japan’s deteriorating strategic position in the region. The role of U.S. and European leadership should be to encourage the regional powers to establish more cross-national ties and foster a broader stakeholder mentality. In the final analysis, the U.S. needs to prepare a strategy for a more proactive role in the region.


View the Presentations:
Pascal Abb, German Institute of Global and Area Studies



Please view the full agenda here.

Please write Kimberly Frank at kfrank@aicgs.org with any questions.


View Photos from the Conference:

[flickr set=”72157649147720895″]


Kenney Auditorium

1740 Massachusetts Ave, NW SAIS Nitze Building Washington, DC 20036 United States

Kenney Auditorium
1740 Massachusetts Ave, NW
SAIS Nitze Building
Washington, DC 20036
United States