East Asia in Transition
No. 3 2014 July/September
Bihari Kausikan

Bilahari Kausikan is Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore.

Implications of East Asian Transformation for World Architecture

The world is undergoing a profound transformation of power and ideas. The modern international system was shaped by the West which prescribed its fundamental concepts, established its basic institutions and practices, and influenced all major developments. That era is now drawing to a close. No one can predict the future and we do not know what will replace the West-dominated system. But we can at least glimpse at some of the challenges we will have to face. 


For the last two hundred years the core issue confronting Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America has been how to adapt to the West-defined modernity. Only a handful of countries, almost all of them in East Asia, have successfully met the challenges. Ironically, the international system is now being changed by the very transformations forced upon these countries by the Western system. Japan led the way after the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century. Yet the most important example is China. What made the old system ultimately unsustainable was China’s decision to abandon a dysfunctional planned communist economic system, embrace the market and integrate itself into the international economic grid. By transforming itself, China transformed the world. 

Major adjustments, both domestic in key countries and geopolitical, will be necessary. Since China was the catalyst, East Asia has found itself at the epicentre of the changes underway. Post-WWII East Asia is largely an American creation. The U.S. provided the stability that for decades has served as the foundation of growth and prosperity. The most difficult and wrenching adjustments will be between the U.S. and China. Historically, all transitions from one type of international system to another were either the result of conflict or resulted in conflict. What is now being attempted is unprecedented in world history: to manage a transition without conflict.

Washington and Beijing are now groping towards a new modus vivendi. Neither finds it easy and establishing a new equilibrium will be a work of decades and not just a few years. Sino-U.S. relations are already the most important bilateral relationship for East Asia, setting the tone for the entire region. As the 21st century progresses, Sino-U.S. relations will become the most important bilateral relationship for the entire world, influencing almost every aspect of international relations, just as U.S.-Soviet relations did during the Cold War.

Rivalry is an inescapable element in any great power relationship. All rising great powers are intrinsically revisionist. The only question is to what degree. This is not necessarily by design but because the rise of major powers disrupts the existing order as an existential fact, irrespective of their intentions. As China grows it will inevitably become more assertive in pursuit of its interests. The signs are already evident. Competition and some degree of tension between the U.S. and China are thus inevitable. But conflict between them is not inevitable.

Unlike in U.S.-Soviet relations, there is no bitter, fundamentally irreconcilable ideological divide between the U.S. and  a China that has now enthusiastically embraced the market. The Soviet Union was containable because it largely contained itself by pursuing autarky. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were linked primarily by the need to avoid mutual destruction. But China is now so vital a part of the world economy and the interdependence between the U.S. and China is so profound that the U.S. might as well try to contain itself as try to contain China, and China might as well try to exclude itself from East Asia as try to displace the U.S. However, this will be tantamount to exercises in futility. Neither the U.S. nor China can achieve its basic national goals without working with the other. This is a reality that neither finds particularly comfortable. Profound interdependence coexists with deep strategic distrust in U.S.-China relations. In fact, interdependence enhances strategic distrust because it exposes mutual vulnerabilities. All the more so because China’s rise has been psychologically disquieting to many in the West.


China and some other East Asian countries are regarded as fundamentally challenging the Western historical narrative because in East Asia and, above all, in China, the market economy flourishes without liberal democracy. This is regarded as unnatural by the West.

This view ignores one inconvenient historical fact: all Western countries were capitalist long before they became liberal or democratic. The form of democracy that developed in the West was the result of highly contingent historical processes and there is no reason to expect it will be replicated elsewhere. But the perceived anomaly resonates with deep Western anxieties because China, unlike, say, Japan or India, only wants to be China and not an honorary member of the West.

The Chinese experience punctures the Western myth of universality. This is a mode of thought that has its origins in monotheistic Christian traditions and is today deeply embedded in even the most secular Western societies. It lies at the heart of the Western sense of self. Yet it is only a myth because our senses tell us that diversity is the most evident characteristic of the world we live in. Diversity is an empirical fact. Curiously, this is a fact celebrated by liberal thought domestically but denigrated internationally. A Western-defined universality could only be imposed in defiance of reality by Western power and a dominance that is now ebbing. Of course, all societies and cultures hold some values in common, but the commonalities are at such a high level of generality that they have little practical significance for how different societies organize themselves.

Except for a handful of countries mainly in the Middle East, every polity now legitimates itself by some variant of the 18th century Western political philosophy which holds that sovereignty derives from the will of the people rather than Divine Right or family bloodline. This is the fundamental basis of democracy. Yet it is evident that, for example, Japanese democracy is not the same as American democracy and American democracy is not the same as the different varieties of European democracy. And Japanese democracy is different from democracy as practised in other Asian countries, say, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore or Malaysia. But all democracies in every region validate themselves by the same 18th-century philosophy; even the “people’s democracies” of China and Vietnam share the same intellectual roots. None is perfect. But perfection is nowhere to be found this side of heaven and the theory they profess is at least the tribute vice pays to virtue.

These are not just abstract considerations because since the end of the Cold War the claim of the universality of certain principles and political forms has been used to justify Western interventions to change regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. That all of these interventions have only resulted in greater instability has not forced any change of Western notions of universality, even if foolish talk about “the end of history” has now been quietly smothered in an embarrassed silence and prudence has ensured that intervention in the name of universality has been deployed only against the small and weak. This has tempered but not erased anxieties that this approach has aroused in many countries.

Not all interventions are military. East Asia, Singapore included, has experienced more than our fair share of Western meddling in our internal affairs. It is an addiction that many in the West do not seem to be able to shake off. Recently it was reported that some British parliamentarians were considering visiting Hong Kong to assess the city’s progress towards democratization. But the British ruled Hong Kong for 156 years as a colony not a democracy; to the British the people of Hong Kong were subjects, not citizens. Yet those British parliamentarians were blissfully unaware of the irony of their presumptions. This is only a minor example that merely made the British look more hypocritical than usual. Unfortunately however, not all manifestations of this habit are so harmlessly amusing. Western leaders often strike moralistic postures for domestic audiences or to preserve their self-esteem; but they do not sufficiently understand that words have strategic consequences.

The Chinese leadership is deeply concerned about maintaining internal stability which they equate with preserving the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). History has taught the Chinese leadership to fear most those historical periods such as they are now experiencing when internal unrest coincides with external uncertainty. With communism a bankrupt ideology, the CCP emphasizes nationalism and economic growth to legitimize its rule. But rapid growth inevitably raises social tensions and nationalism is a double edged sword that the CCP knows can easily turn against itself. The CCP is engaged in a delicate balancing act, and its future largely depends on the success of the new stage of ambitious reforms announced at the Third Plenum of the 18th CCP Congress last year.

China will not become a multi-party system on the Western model. But Chinese politics is becoming more normal. The days are long past when any Chinese leader, however powerful, can simply command. The Chinese system has become more pluralist, competing institutional and regional interests are brokered in the context of public opinion easily inflamed by social media. China has 500 million netizens. Unfortunately, in the 21st-century “normal” politics is also all too often dysfunctional. This is a global phenomenon caused by the collision of the 18th-century notion of the sovereignty of the people with 21st-century communications technologies. Internet-based social media conflates the idea of ‘the people’ with the views of individuals or small groups; it confuses fact with opinion, devalues expertise and sets up dynamics that make governance more difficult. It remains to be seen how the CCP will cope.

Under these challenging circumstances, the Chinese leadership can be forgiven for regarding Western attitudes towards universality with grave suspicion. It is significant that the “new model of great power relations” that China has proposed to the U.S. has respect for “core interests” as a central theme. Preservation of the CCP’s rule is certainly a core interest and who is to say that this is wrong? Political reform is difficult in any system. Given the traumatic experience of the former Soviet Union under Gorbachev’s ill-considered reforms, Chinese leaders are correct to be very cautious. It is not self-evident that a multi-party system is optimal for a country the size of China. A failed China would destabilize not just East Asia but the world.

At the same time, China’s leaders must understand that their own words and actions have strategic consequences too. If a successful peaceful transition requires that the West abandon a pretentious liberal democratic universality and admit that different political systems have their own legitimacy and intellectual validity, it also requires that China resist the temptation of triumphalist nationalism. This is particularly so because far more than other nationalisms, contemporary Chinese nationalism is outwardly directed.


Chinese nationalism is today focused on Japan. The Chinese public is fed a steady diet of movies, TV dramas, documentaries and publications keeping alive and fanning bitter memories of the Second World War and Japanese atrocities in China. But this was not always the case. On at least two occasions, to a Japanese socialist group in 1964 and to then Prime Minister Tanaka in 1972, no less a person than Mao Zedong himself brushed aside apologies for Japan’s wartime record in China because, as Mao then said, it was with the “help” of the Japanese invasion that the CCP emerged victorious. In 1971, he told President Nixon much the same thing.

The CCP then based its primary claim to legitimacy on class struggle. It emphasized its defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) rather than Japan, and indeed it was the KMT rather than the CCP that bore the brunt of the fighting against Japan with the CCP largely husbanding its strength for the post-war struggle for power. But once China embraced the market economy, this was no longer credible. And once after the CCP decided in 2002 to allow businessmen working in private enterprises – capitalists by any other name – to join its ranks, class struggle lacked any credibility as a claim to legitimacy.

But as nominal communists, the CCP cannot focus Chinese nationalism on China’s long history. If the imperial past was so glorious, why the need for a revolution? And the CCP’s attitude towards its own revolutionary history – the disastrous famine caused by ill-considered policies such as the Great Leap Forward and the many lives lost or wrecked by the Cultural Revolution – and indeed towards Mao himself is ambivalent. Chinese nationalism must be primarily directed outwards lest awkward questions be asked internally about the CCP itself.

There is no doubt that Japan did behave with great brutality during the Second World War, not just in China but in Southeast Asia. But keeping alive bitter memories when most of East Asia except Korea has moved on conscribes China’s own room for manoeuvre and complicates the already complicated adjustments with the U.S., Japan’s principal ally, that are necessary for a peaceful transition. Virulent nationalism casts a shadow over relations with the smaller countries around China’s periphery where the sheer disparity of size and economic weight already causes anxieties and risks polarizing a region in which some Chinese actions in the East and South China Seas have led several countries to seek a closer relationship with the U.S. There is an ancient Chinese tradition that stresses the importance of the rectification of names. Wrong words lead to wrong deeds and risk making China’s most serious concerns a reality. A more robust American posture in the South China Sea is already becoming manifest and welcomed by many countries in the region.

It is entirely natural that any country will defend what it considers to be its sovereign rights. It is entirely natural that any country will want the best military force that it can afford because the ability to defend one’s self is a vital attribute of sovereignty. I find nothing unusual in Chinese maritime claims in the East and South China Seas or in China’s military modernization program. What is critical is how a country defends its sovereignty and what use it makes of its military force. Will claims of sovereignty be pursued within common frameworks of norms, including procedural norms to change norms regarded as obsolete or unjust, or by unilateral actions based on superior force? It is this more than any other single factor that will determine whether the “China dream” will become the region’s nightmare. The record is mixed and China has not behaved consistently. Great powers have a responsibility to reassure that China has only partly fulfilled.

Every Chinese schoolchild knows of the hundred years of humiliation that China suffered. The CCP is the latest iteration in a history of experimentation that began with the “self-strengthening” movements of the 19th century. Since the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the Chinese have tried republicanism, communism and now the market economy in search of wealth and power to preserve China from foreign predations. This history has made the CCP a highly adaptive organization which, unlike the former Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is not led by leaders in denial but by competent and rigorously tested cadres with a clinical appreciation of China’s challenges. But the mentality and pose of a victim ill suits a great power.

It was never very realistic to expect China to be a “responsible stakeholder” in a regional and global order which it had no say in establishing and which it holds responsible for a century of humiliation. It is natural for any rising power to want to revise the existing order to better reflect its interests. No status quo is ever static and nothing lasts forever. The U.S. and its friends and allies in East Asia will have to accept this reality. At the same time, the current regional and global order has not been entirely unfavourable to China and indeed has facilitated its rise, at least over the last three decades. So there is no compelling immediate reason for China to kick over the table and seek radical revisions.

Setting aside the sovereignty disputes, what is most problematic is not that China is revisionist; it is that China is still overall a global free-rider on a system whose original creators and beneficiaries cannot now afford to maintain without help. The question that cannot now be answered is what price the West and in particular the U.S. will be prepared to pay for help. Indeed, the Chinese themselves probably have not yet entirely settled on what price to ask. This may explain the many uncertainties of the transition and the inconsistency of Chinese foreign policy pulled this way and the vagaries of domestic opinion, which is no longer under control and which Chinese leaders both fear and use.

That said, sovereignty disputes do have a special resonance and arouse special sensitivities. In February this year, President Xi Jinping met Lien Chan, the former Taiwanese Premier and Vice-President, in what was hailed as the highest level exchange since Mao Zedong met Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. In a speech on that occasion that The People’s Daily published on its front page under the title “The Chinese Dream to Fulfil the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People Together,” President Xi cast the meeting in the historical context of how Taiwan had been occupied by foreign powers when the Chinese nation had been weak. The speech was specific to Taiwan. But by casting reconciliation with Taiwan as an instance of the rectification of the historical injustices done to a weak China it suggested and left open a broader settling of accounts.

China is increasingly defining its sovereignty claims in the East and South China Seas in terms of its historical rights. This is bound to raise anxiety levels even if China does not mean it in the same way as Taiwan. China has pledged that its development will be peaceful. It has carefully studied the experiences of Germany and Japan to avoid the mistakes that led both to disaster. There is no reason to disbelieve China as a conflict with the U.S. can in all probability only have one outcome. Even a stalemate will risk the CCP’s grip on power. In international law history has a role in claims over territory but not in maritime claims. And history alone is not an appropriate criterion to settle sovereignty disputes because it is always subject to multiple interpretations and interpretations are constantly being revised as new facts come to light and interests change. But Chinese leaders seem trapped by their own narratives. This may well lead them in directions they do not intend.

The Chinese government and people are rightly proud of what they have achieved. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in so short a time. Still it would be a dangerous mistake to try to understand the complex global and regional transitions that are underway by simplistic slogans. Some Chinese intellectuals and even some officials occasionally come perilously close to boasting that “China is rising, the West is declining.” But the changes in the distribution of power that are occurring are relative not absolute. The global patterns of trade, finance, investments and production chains that have evolved as a result of East Asian growth cannot be characterized by geographically defined dichotomies. Many economic roads now pass through China and many more will in the future. Nevertheless the final destination is still more often than not the U.S. or Europe. China is certainly rising. But it is always a mistake to believe one’s own propaganda, the West (and the U.S. in particular) is not declining. All who have underestimated American creativity, resilience and resolve have regretted it.


The East Asia that is growing is in any case an East Asia that has been profoundly influenced by contacts with the West. The most successful East Asian countries, China included, are those that have most thoroughly adapted to a West-defined modernity. This has enabled some of us, again China included, to “leave Asia” as was the ambition for Japan of Fukuzawa Yukichi, the Meiji era reformer. Of course, this does not mean that any of us must replicate without modification Western institutions, uncritically adopt Western ideologies or sacrifice core cultural identities.

The meaning of what we understand to be “the West” is evolving under the pressures of a growing East Asia. China’s rise is forcing a reappraisal of the way Western countries approach issues like Tibet and Taiwan, particularly in those European countries that look to China cap in hand for help in a time of austerity. In a very tentative and as yet inchoate manner the internal structural changes imposed by the new world economy are even forcing some in the West to ask themselves if liberal values taken to extremes have not become self-subverting. We have all changed. There can be no “clash of civilizations” because no traditional civilization exists anywhere in pure form, except on the inconsequential periphery. It is not as if the Western system will be suddenly and cataclysmically displaced by an Asian system.

A multidimensional process of social, economic, political and cultural metamorphosis has been underway and gathering force in East Asia since the Meiji Restoration. The road has not been smooth and there will be many unpredictable twists and turns. But the trajectory has been set. Once the metamorphosis is complete, there will be a new hybrid, that is to say a new world system. No one can now say with any certainty how long this will take, or what specific institutional forms it will take, or what collateral damage may be incurred along the way, or and what the ultimate implications will be for international relations.

In East Asia it has already made the strategic environment more complex and unpredictable. The tensions over maritime claims are obvious symptoms. But these issues will not be the only or most serious manifestations of the new strategic complexities. U.S.-China relations are at the center of the necessary adjustments and complexities. But Sino-Japanese relations, Japan-Korea relations and Sino-Indian relations also require adjustments and are particularly sensitive, replete with ambushes laid by their long and complexly interwoven histories. Southeast Asia, too, has its own complications that require careful management.

There are no obvious or easy solutions. Still if there is one factor that distinguishes East Asia from all other non-Western regions, it is East Asia’s commitment to growth. Of course all countries in every region profess growth as a priority. Few really mean it. But in East Asia, with the exception of North Korea, growth far more than any abstract political theory is the primary means by which governments legitimate their rule. This does not guarantee peace. Still, East Asian governments at least have a strong self-interest to minimize actions that could disrupt growth. And I take comfort in the fact that self-interest is the most sincere form of interest. The primary risk is conflict by inadvertence not war by design.

This is not a risk that can be entirely discounted. Recent actions by claimant states in the East and South China Seas have increased the probability of accidents. This underscores the continuing critical importance of the U.S. presence to maintain stability. Nothing can replace it. China is not ready and even if it were, it is not entirely clear that it would be in its interest to do so. Without a strong U.S. presence in East Asia and a credible alliance with the U.S., Japan could well become a nuclear weapon state. It has the ability to do so very quickly. If Japan goes nuclear, will South Korea sit idly by? The complexities and uncertainties would multiply. But at the same time, there is a consensus across East Asia, including among U.S. friends and allies, that some new architecture is now needed to supplement the U.S. presence to maintain stability; the U.S. presence is a necessary but no longer sufficient condition for stability.

This broad consensus does not in itself prescribe a solution and the debate over a new East Asian architecture itself reflects the stresses and rivalries it seeks to mitigate. Many of these fault lines converge in Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) finds itself at the center of this debate, subject to multiple pressures from major powers. At present, two competing visions of regional order are in play: a Sino-centric vision built around ASEAN-China Dialogue relationship (10+1) and the ASEAN plus Three (APT) forum which comprises the ten Southeast Asia states with China, Japan and South Korea, and a broader and more open architecture built around the East Asia Summit (EAS) which is the APT with the addition of the U.S., Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Given the growing centrality of East Asia in the world economy and the strategic weight of the U.S. and China, the outcome of the debate over a new East Asian architecture will be the single most important influence on the global architecture of the 21st century. This is the strategic significance of what has been dismissed by Western observers, who do not really understand what they observe, as talk shops. No option has yet been foreclosed. The 10+1, the APT and the EAS are all experiments. But China’s preference is clear. At a Special China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in Beijing in August 2013, China proposed an ambitious and detailed agenda of political and economic projects. These will undoubtedly benefit the region. But if taken to fruition, they will also have the effect of binding Southeast Asia and Southwest China into one economic and strategic space. Japan and South Korea will then have the Hobson’s choice of going along or be relegated to the periphery with the U.S.

A considerable portion of Russian territory lies in East Asia or is contiguous to it. Russia is a member of the EAS and APEC. But Russian leaders are understandably more focused on the West and I do not get the sense that Moscow has yet thought deeply enough about how best to position itself in the transitions that are underway in East Asia. Russia plays no significant independent role in the rebalancing that is underway in East Asia. Indeed, there is some reason to believe that some of its initiatives in this region may be against its own long-term interests.

Russia has introduced the concept of “indivisible security” in the EAS. It is widely regarded by almost all other EAS members except China as an attempt to undermine the current U.S.-centric East Asian security architecture. I entirely understand why Russia finds the NATO-based security architecture on its western borders threatening. But are Russian interests in the east necessarily identical to Russian interests in the west? Concern over U.S. and EU actions on Russia’s western borders should not cloud judgement about Russian interests in East Asia where the current security architecture no longer has Russia as its primary target. Instead, the balance it promotes gives Russia the freedom to maneuver as an independent actor despite its more pressing security concerns in the west. The alternative to some modification of the current architecture is a Sino-centric system in which Russia will almost inevitably find itself a junior partner. This is not a position that any great power should find tolerable.