Chinese Foreign Policy Is Not Responsible for the ‘Asian Peace’
During a recent lecture on U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific, I presented the absence of interstate wars in East Asia since 1979 — the so-called “Asian peace” — as a puzzle, asking students to assign causal weight to various popular explanations for the phenomenon. Among the possible answers were U.S. alliances, U.S. military superiority, economic interdependence, “Asian” norms prioritizing sovereignty and non-interference, regional institutions, and the spread of democracy. Although I’d rank order the importance of these factors in accounting for the absence of Asian wars roughly in the order listed, I stressed that this is a question scholars still debate.
Shortly after the lecture, a conversation with one of my sharp students, and some down-time listening to an episode of the Jaw-Jaw podcast with David Kang, it dawned on me that I might have overlooked the most important factor in explaining why war hasn’t happened since 1979 — Chinese foreign policy. Among some Chinese scholars, and Asian security scholars sympathetic to Chinese narratives about world politics, it has become fashionable to attribute the Asian peace and other positive events in Asia to a shift in China’s mindset as its leadership changed from Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping.
Revising history to place China at the center of positive regional narratives is not entirely baseless. 1979 was the year that the United States and China officially normalized relations. The prior year, Deng effectively announced that China would promote economic development over continuous revolution, trading with the outside world and raising the Chinese standard of living. And prior to these fateful decisions, China had been a belligerent party to America’s wars in Asia since World War II — specifically the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And of course China fought against Vietnam too. But 1979 was undoubtedly a shift. As statements of historical record, this is all true.
And yet these historical fragments don’t add up to an explanation for the Asian peace. To the contrary, they represent a distorted Sinification of contemporary Asian history. Scholarly Sino-centrism crowds out logical analysis based on standards of evidence and the existing literature in favor of overstating China’s role in the fates of nations.
Attributing Asian “peace” to Chinese foreign policy makes two logical errors. The first is one that realist scion Kenneth Waltz waxed about often — the cause of system-level outcomes cannot be solely attributed to the decisions of a single state unless those decisions somehow change the structure of the system. In essence, attributing regional outcomes to Chinese decisions alone confuses international politics with foreign policy. International politics — and the Asian peace as such — is a regional-level phenomenon, not the outcome of a single state’s foreign policy per se. Advocates of the Pax Americana view of world politics can only take that position because America’s foreign and defense policy choices produced system-level change — the so-called “unipolar moment.” The Chinese foreign policy argument cannot (and so far does not) make such a claim.
The second logical error is that it represents the same reasoning as saying that Donald Trump deserves credit for the Asian “peace” since 2017 because he opted out of a nuclear crisis with North Korea that he caused. We gain no new insight or analytical clarity by saying something didn’t happen because somebody refrained from doing said thing. If China deserves causal credit for Asia’s “peace” because it stopped fighting conflicts in Asia, then so too does Vietnam. And the United States. And every other Asian nation that decided not to fight a war. China’s decision not to fight wars in Asia since 1979 is not unique — it’s the same decision other Asian states made, which is why it’s a puzzle. At the regional (not state) level. Surely the best answer to that puzzle is not that others decided not to fight because China decided not to fight.
More important than the logical missteps are the historical ones. A Sino-centric narrative about the Asian “peace” errs as a matter of observable history. China does have a central role in some potential flash points across Asia, but it also has little if any role in many others. For instance, a longstanding territorial dispute between Singapore and Malaysia has nothing to do with China. Neither do decades-long Australian concerns about Indonesia. Or the suppression of historical rivalry between Japan and South Korea. And we know that China has little influence over what happens on a Korean Peninsula that is perpetually one misstep away from war. For example, there have been incidents in Korea, as recently as 2010, where a war was plausible — and would have punctured the Asian “peace” — but ultimately did not occur because of last-minute interventions by U.S. officials to restrain its South Korean ally. To try and claim Chinese centrality in flash points and crises where China is either on the periphery or entirely absent is just bad history.
Even if we were to ignore these logical and historical reasons against putting China at the center of modern Asian history, presenting Chinese foreign policy as the primary “cause” of peace is itself a false representation that simply introduces a new puzzle: How do we explain Chinese foreign policy change in the 1970s? China’s shift from cultural revolution to authoritarian capitalism and normalization of relations with the United States has more than one cause. The death of Mao Zedong in 1976 surely played a role, but so too did the positive momentum from the rapprochement between the United States and China that dated back to 1972. It’s hard to imagine Deng Xiaoping pivoting to the economy if Nixon had never gone to China, and if President Jimmy Carter was determined to contain — rather than normalize relations with — China. In this sense, attributing the absence of wars in Asia to a Chinese foreign policy decision makes the added mistake of attributing independence to something that was only possible in conjunction with similar U.S. decisions. The Sino-American rapprochement and normalization were mutual, not national, decisions.
But the problem with Sinicizing one of the better news stories in Asia’s recent history isn’t just that it’s poor analysis. It’s that it highlights a dangerous tendency, particularly among Chinese scholars, to succumb to the same reality-distorting exceptionalism for which America has long been guilty. In this instance, bad history could embolden Chinese foreign policy and inadvertently remove historical barriers to conflict. If China develops an outsized sense of its influence abroad, and if in hijacking historical narratives it convinces others of the same, then we risk living in a Sino-centric world constructed on analytical error — one that unwittingly marginalizes the factors and types of decisions that have actually helped prevent war.
Van Jackson, PhD, is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies. He is the author of On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (Cambridge University Press, 2018).