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Understanding The Asian Peace

January 14, 2010

When the Cold War ended, many people feared that new and old conflicts around the world would start flaring up. But this did not happen in East Asia – despite China’s economic expansion, historical conflicts in the area and a number of flash points, such as North Korea.

‘There should be more wars in the area,’ says Mikael Weissman from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, in a new doctoral thesis.

Mikael Weissmann’s thesis in peace and development research sets out to explore why there is peace in Asia. He directs particular attention to the role of China in three specific contexts: its relation with Taiwan and the developments in North Korea and in the South China Sea. The dominant research paradigm – neorealism – has painted a gloomy picture of post-Cold War East Asia, with constant conflicts dominating the predictions. Other theories have problems explaining the East Asian peace as well, even if they tend to be less pessimistic.

‘One of the major problems with the mainstream theories is their inability to explain the peace in regions such as East Asia that lack security organizations or other formalized mechanisms to manage conflicts.’

Focus on the role of China

Weissman has investigated the role of both formal and informal processes in preventing conflicts and establishing peace in three cases from 1990 to 2008: the conflict between Mainland China and Taiwan and the cases of North Korea and the South China Sea (which several countries claim). The study focuses especially on China’s role in these three cases. The case studies are based on interviews with key people (including policymakers and military personnel), and were conducted during more than one-and-a-half years of fieldwork in China.

The study concludes that there are numerous processes in place, and that they have indeed been important for the maintenance of peace in the area. These processes have both prevented conflicts from escalating into wars and facilitated a more durable peace.

‘Five types of processes have been identified as the most central. We’re talking about elite interactions, meaning different forms of networks, contacts, and social interaction among influential individuals, and increased economic cooperation and interdependence among countries in East Asia. These processes, in combination with China’s increasing institutionalization of peaceful relations with its neighbors and acceptance of multilateralism – or willingness to negotiate and cooperate with several other parties on various issues instead of negotiating with only one party at a time (bilateralism) – have resulted in the peace we’re seeing.’

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