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Foreign policies and diplomacies in Asia

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The “Rise of Asia,” in contemporary terms, is already a multi-decade story, one which began with the postwar recovery of Japan, building in less than two generations the second-highest GDP on the planet, and followed by a succession of “economic miracles,” the most recent, and also the most dramatic, that of China.
This story has moved well beyond being an economic one. Among the innumerable ramifications of this transformative era, geopolitics and its hand-maiden, diplomacy in all of its forms, today receives the most deserved attention, not least among scholars, even the best of whom are hard-pressed to keep up with developments in Asia, let alone explain their import.
Still, a great deal of excellent analysis is available to those, in academia and out, who seek to understand at least the direction of international relations, if not their ultimate destination. It’s easy to list the ongoing geopolitical, economic, security, even cultural developments, another matter to assert their outcomes.
A recent addition to the outpouring of informed reflection on geopolitics and diplomacy is Foreign Policies and Diplomacies in Asia, edited by Matthias Maass, currently at Yonsei University, only the most recent stop for this peripatetic academic. Along with eight other distinguished academics, he seeks to “probe and explore how the changing regional dynamics are reshaping the political landscape in a rising Asia,” (13) and on this point, the volume enjoys a measure of success. Thematically, Maass’ book covers much that is relevant to an understanding of the region’s dynamics, with many of the views of contributors expressing refreshingly unconventional views. And interestingly, while this 2014 volume contains primarily chapters that date back to 2010, the issues it raises remain highly relevant in 2015. Even in dynamic Asia, where change is the norm, so is continuity.
Two contributors (Chong and Howe) outline the constraints on the development of a regional security consensus, explaining the limitations arising from a dearth of shared political and social values: what is shared is a “sovereignty-centered, non-interventionist paradigm” that sets its own limits on a predisposition in favour of cooperation.
The dynamics promoting both stability and instability in Northeast Asia are outlined by Lukin. He posits a set of structural breaks against armed conflict, arising from demographics and aging populations: less war-like; regional economic integration with high mutual dependency rations; and a regional nuclear balance of terror.
Southeast Asia and its dominant institution, ASEAN, once Asia’s convener-in-chief, has seen its influence wane, for reasons internal (limits on its economic and political integration) and external (Chinese economic and political clout). The two contributors (Noortmann and Tang) focus on internal ASEAN dynamics to explain its loss of momentum, accelerating the speed and impact on the region of China’s rise.
An interesting chapter (by Ming Hwa Ting) on the distinctive and competitive relations which China and India maintain with Myanmar throws an informed light on how these emerging superpowers insert strategic considerations in their relations with this important neighbour state—all neighbours by definition being of strategic import. China’s ability to throw money and infrastructure at Myanmar contrasts with India’s focus on managing bilateral political relations—one is tempted to add faute de mieux. These distinctive approaches say a great deal about the priorities and capacities of the two large players in the conduct of their foreign relations.
Wilkins’ “Reinventing Japan in the Asian Century” fits the argument in the title: the sum of all of Japan’s current challenges is less than the extent of its resources and its capabilities. Japan’s economy (third in the world) and military capacity (sixth) offer the potential for international power projection. True as far as it goes. But unfortunately for Wilkins, his 2010 sources lead him to conclude that Japan’s erstwhile, if misleadingly named, “omni-directional foreign policy” will be sufficient to manage its relations with the US and the rise of China at the same time, a misreading of the depth of the China challenge and ever-evolving US expectations of its allies.
The strategic reach of Chinese diplomacy is best captured in Safiullin’s chapter on China, Central Asia, and the uses and impacts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The focus is not on China’s economic diplomacy— important in Central Asia as it is elsewhere—but on its conduct of the security dialogues with the “Stans” on its Western border, emphasizing common threats, cooperation, and identity over the establishment of a common security regime. Safiullin emphasizes the importance of promoting ideas of a “common security space” in China’s regional diplomacy, an example of the breadth of tools Chinese policy makers have in their kit to defend and promote their national interests.
A few minor caveats: Maass does not provide thumbnail bios of his writers, so non-academics will be googling and guessing who is who. And inescapably, there are errors of fact: the Asian Tigers were not the precedent for China’s economic rise: that was Japan; Japan was not the only country that escaped Western colonialism: so did Thailand; and so forth. Many of the writers also bow, at the outset, to the spirits of political and diplomatic theories (constructivism, neorealism, even Kahneman’s prospect theory, etc.) before moving on to the more interesting task of calling regional developments as they see them.
These are quibbles for what is an informed and insightful reflection on some of the key dynamics shaping Asia and its place in the world.

Joseph Caron  (The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)

first published in Pacific Affairs Volume 89, No. 2 – June 2016 

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