East Asia: Stories About Conflict and Identity

East Asia is the centre of world economic growth, a region whose budding international cooperation over the past decade provoked talk of a new regional order governed by mutual respect among states. All the players understand that any large-scale conflict in the region would invite an economic disaster that could collapse the whole house of cards.

Consider just one choke point. The Malacca Strait carries over a quarter of the world’s sea-transported oil supplies and over 60,000 vessels per year. It is impossible to even begin to trace the impact of an ongoing disruption of that trade route. That is before we consider intra-regional trade through the South and East China seas and the impact of trade embargoes that war would inevitably bring.

It appears that serious interstate conflict is an irrational course for every player in East Asia as viewed from regional and global economic perspectives. And yet, we can’t stop worrying about it. As the song goes, why can’t we be friends?

Enmity and Identity

Nation states are, above all, ideas. Defining, spreading and demarcating national identity is always a contested process and one that depends on the stories told about other identities. It is on this level that the popular nationalism of modern East Asia operates. To understand this in historical context, it may be helpful to go back to a similar period in European history, the age of national consolidation.

There was nothing about the configuration of languages or cultures in medieval Europe to suggest that modern France or Spain or Britain would emerge as unified countries. These territories were divided by multiple languages and cultures, political allegiances and historical enmities. In each case, these differences were suppressed by a hegemonic culture, language and historical narrative in an attempt to create sameness from difference. There was a time when French was a minority language within the area of modern France, and, like Castillian Spanish and English, it was a matter of deliberate policy to extend the domain of the language of the central power. The violent suppression of Gaelic and Welsh in Britain is particularly well-documented.

At the same time, there were border areas that changed hands numerous times over the era of national consolidation- Alsace, the Aland Islands, Sardinia. There remain territorial disputes in Europe today, thankfully no longer contested by violence for the most part. But during the era of national consolidation, these disputes were very convenient for the countries involved. National identity could be shored up over and against hostile states and by the common enterprise and experience of warfare.

It is in light of this experience that the abiding narratives of national enmity within East Asia can be understood as more than just fixation upon the scars of history. This is, in essence, Asia’s era of national consolidation. It is not that there weren’t nations in Asia before- but since the end of colonialism, they have been re-invented as European-style nation states.

We can see the insecurity of early European state identities mirrored in East Asia. In the case of Indonesia, the persistence of dissent in the form of secessionist movements became clear when political liberalisation allowed the effective expression of dissent in the 1990s. Against the movements among the populations of Papua and Aceh for independence, the regime has mustered not only military force, but narratives of “unitary” statehood versus national disintegration.

The colonial borders seldom conformed to historical or ethnic realities. For example, four formerly Thai provinces are in Malaysian hands due an unequal treaty between Thailand and the British. Many Southeast Asian governments, as with postcolonial states in many parts of the world, are internally driven by the challenges of state legitimacy.

We can also see that, as in Europe, narratives of international conflict arise from the need to assert historical identity over and against rival states. Let’s look at Southeast Asia. For the Viet linguistic majority, the national narrative stems from the history of resistance to Chinese invasions and the attempt to construct a national identity and maintain sovereignty distinct from Chinese culture. China annexed Vietnam for almost a millennium, and tried several times to re-conquer it after a successful rebellion. Both Thailand and Vietnam have histories of rivalry and expansionism at the expense of the surrounding states, generating still more conflict narratives. Almost all East Asian states have a repertoire of latent narratives related to historical conflicts, which vanish into the background while relations are good but are quickly brought forward when relations sour.

It’s easier to understand the role of historical conflict narratives in forming national identity by substituting the names of the ethnicities involved for the names of the states. The history, for example, of Sino-Vietnamese conflict is very short. The history of Han-Viet conflict is much longer, while other ethnicities in Vietnam played different roles in this conflict, one of which was to be subjugated under Viet expansion.

For China, the central narrative has been that of the “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers, especially the West and Japan. Every schoolchild in China learns about this, and the Party education system places the history of the Party in this context, as a force fighting to reclaim the dignity of China. Because this period was marked by territorial concessions to a number of other powers, the idea of territorial integrity holds a special place in Chinese nationalism- and nationalism itself is the de facto successor to Maoism as an approved State ideology.

Conflict narratives emerge to prominence following an inciting incident, but while governments may make use of them, they cannot always control them. The intrusions of Chinese vessels into waters around the Spratlys has led to mass nationalist protests against Chinese imperialism in Hanoi, on which the authorities sometimes tried to crack down. Popular protests in China in 2005 over Japan’s bid for a Security Council seat were likewise met with attempts by the Communist Party to contain them. It seems that governments neither completely identify with conflict narratives nor wish them to become excessively influential in national discourse or international relations. That said, it may be too late to address these problems when conflict erupts.

Still, the central point remains that every story about historical conflict in the region carries political weight and emotional power because the stories themselves are totems and bulwarks of national identity- and no conflict is more enduring or heated than one in which identity is at stake.

The Sinocentric Region

Conflict narratives are not the only stories in play. One of the most powerful narratives for a rising China has been the idea of historical Sinocentric Asia.

In this system, Asian power structures were defined by a relationship with Imperial China, held together through tributary trading missions. It is on this history that the frequent Chinese claim of inherent benevolence toward the region and peacefully moral cultural leadership rests. While this is easy for neighbouring countries to accept at certain times, certain kinds of Chinese actions can cause them to remember other aspects of this history.

The ideal of benevolent Confucian hierarchy and leadership by persuasion formed the ideological facade of the Sinocentric system, while in practice China regularly invaded neighbouring countries including Vietnam and Korea, annexing both at various points.

China’s current participation as one state among equals in the international system is historically exceptional. How far, many ask, will China go in trying to re-establish its traditional hegemony in the region?

Why Are We Still At Peace?

In an atmosphere where stray fishing trawlers generate mass protests and months of international hostility, where conflict narratives lurk under every stone, the remarkable thing is that somehow, the region has managed to go so long without full-scale war, something often lost on security commentators.

All states in the region have experienced existential crises within the past six decades, whether through interethnic tensions, civil war, secessionism, invasion or revolution. This has led to a strong collective norm among states that says, in effect, problems between states come second to problems within states.

Respect for the sovereignty of other states and non-interference in their internal affairs is the basis of East Asian regional diplomacy, manifested in the Indo-Chinese Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence in the 1950s, which in turn greatly influenced the Fundamental Principles of ASEAN. These include:

1. Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
2. The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion;
3. Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
4. Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
5. Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
6. Effective cooperation among themselves.

It is under this normative framework that the ASEAN nations of Southeast Asia have slowly built up a new structure of regional institutions over the past decade. ASEAN Plus Three (APT), a consultative body which includes China, Japan and South Korea, the security-focussed ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and the China-ASEAN Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) are but a few examples. Vietnam, a former enemy, is now an ASEAN member. China’s process of global integration began with experience as an ASEAN observer, to the point that many credit ASEAN with socialising China to multilateral institutions.

It is largely down to this direction in regional politics that conflict has been effectively contained to this point. However, there are signs that China in particular may regard this normative structure as a safety net it no longer requires. Chinese refusal to come to terms over recent events in the Spratly and Paracel island disputes has caused previous warm relations to chill.

Defence Relationships

Asia is marked by a strange network of military interactions, which defies expectations of a deterrence-based security order. Many states in the region seem to have given themselves political space through an approach that is neither non-alignment nor single alignment, but a balance of alignments. Counter intuitively, this seems to increase, rather than decrease, the perception of security of individual states.

The United States, of course, has various levels of security relationships, including military-to-military, with most countries in the region beyond its overt security commitments to Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. China has fostered military relationships with South Korea, India, Vietnam and Japan among others, and describes these relationships as “strategic partnerships” and “mutually beneficial strategic relationship[s]”. Japan has recently signed a maritime security agreement with the Philippines. Vietnam has also developed security ties with Singapore, and is looking for a closer defence relationship with the United States. The 1971 Five-Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) between Malaysia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand was conceived to allow Australia and New Zealand to assume the United Kingdom’s traditional role as security guarantor for Malaysia and Singapore following the withdrawal of British forces. It provides for peacetime joint training exercises, which have recently been expanded in frequency and scope, and for “consultation” in the event of a threat to Malaysia or Singapore.

This network of defence relations typically puts a premium on knowledge and familiarity. With so many doors kept open and a relative lack of ironclad commitments, there is substantial flexibility in the configuration of power.

However, still the most important defence relationships in the region are those of the United States. Its military presence in the region, especially taken together with with the forces of its regional allies, is by far the strongest even now.

Stories About the Future

The story rising China tells about itself is of rebuilding its historical and natural pre-eminence in Asia. The story ASEAN tells is of cooperation and peaceful economic advancement. The story that Western security pundits tell is of conflict. Before we take that conflict to be inevitable, we should be aware of the sense of historical enmity that has been driving conflict, and the countervailing forces that have, thus far, prevented it. It is never about territory. It is about what the territory signifies for the peoples involved on the level of historical identity.

Full Sourcing Available upon Request


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2 thoughts on “East Asia: Stories About Conflict and Identity

  1. […] I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East […]

  2. […] I’ve argued previously, China is looking at an economic umbilical cord that runs from the oil fields of the Middle East […]

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