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Stein Tønnesson: Explaining the East Asian Peace. A Research Story Nias Press. Denmark 

Explaining the East Asian Peace A Research Story
Forfatter: Stein Tønnesson
Forlag: Nias Press (Danmark )
In 30 years after the war, East Asia was one of the most violent regions in the world. Will the peace since 1979 continue?


In the book Explaining the East Asian Peace peace researcher Stein Tønnesson presents his conclusions from several years of research on the long-term peace in East Asia. The topic is well worth studying. East Asia, comprising a third of humanity, has gone from being one of the most violent regions in the world to not having had a single intergovernmental war since China withdrew from North Vietnam in 1979. Parallel to the decline in intergovernmental conflicts, there have also been fewer and fewer civil wars, partly because rebel movements no longer received support from foreign states. East Asia's share of worldwide deaths has dropped from 80 percent in the period 1946 – 79 to 1,7 percent in the period since 1990; from 1,8 million killed in the period 1946 – 50 to 5300 in the period 2011 – 15.

An important prerequisite for the development is that the national elites feel safe enough to prioritize defense spending and become more dependent on international trade.

Peace cannot be explained by the liberal peace theory that emphasizes the necessity of free trade, parliamentary democracy and supranational institutions. The East Asian regimes range from parliamentary democracies such as Japan, via one-party states such as Vietnam, to North Korea, which Tønnesson refers to as "the world's only totalitarian state." And although there is a lot of and growing trade between the countries, there are no regional institutions that regulate this. Tønnesson argues that peace is mainly due to intentional rather than structural conditions. The willingness of regional leaders to prioritize economic cooperation and development has been crucial in preventing war in the region.

The causes of peace. Tønnesson's main thesis is that peace is a result of political elites with economic development as the top priority gaining power in more and more East Asian states. He defines these as "the state [is] governed by a determined, development-oriented elite with a powerful economic bureaucracy, a weak civil society and effective management of both state and private companies". The economic model has been to combine protection of own markets with subsidization of export-oriented industry, and has led to industrialization and economic growth. The model for development has been Japan, which after World War II adopted a constitution that prohibited threats or the use of force in international relations. This enabled the Japanese to prioritize trade and industry at the expense of military spending, which in turn dampened fears of Japan in the other East Asian states and thus enabled them to prioritize in the same way.

Tønnesson emphasizes an important prerequisite for this development model: that the national elites feel secure enough to downgrade defense spending and become more dependent on international trade. The United States plays an ambiguous role here. For Japan, the US military presence was a prerequisite for them to feel safe enough to downplay their own defense. For North Korea, the presence of the United States is the main reason why they do not dare to do so.

Another prerequisite for peace is the recognition of each other's boundaries. Tønnesson points out that the vast majority of land border disputes have been resolved peacefully in recent years, and that several countries have shown willingness to submit to the decisions of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, even when the decisions have been against them. However, major challenges remain with regard to the sea areas. China has refused to comply with the ruling of a UN court that ruled that China's demands for expanded economic zones in the South China Sea violate the law of the sea because the areas China claims can not be considered islands, but reefs. Another problem is that no peace agreement has ever been signed after the Korean War, so that the borders between South and North Korea are still regulated by the ceasefire agreement from 1953. Tønnesson writes in this connection that North Korea's "foremost diplomatic goal" is to achieve a final peace agreement with the United States.

There are forces in the United States that believe it will be possible to win a naval war against China without escalating to nuclear level.

Threats to peace. The main threat to peace in East Asia is linked to relations between China and the United States. A collapse of the Chinese state or war between the United States and China are "two of the world's worst nightmares", writes the peace researcher. Some actors in the United States believe that China has aggressive intentions and that war between the United States and China is very likely. Among these is the economist Peter Navarro, as in the book Crouching Tiger has called for reducing US dependence on Chinese goods and maintaining a superior military power in Asia that will be able to mine China's coast and carry out an oil embargo. Navarro was recently appointed chairman of the US Trade Council by US President Donald Trump.

Tønnesson believes that the combination of mutual economic dependence and nuclear deterrence makes a Sino-American conflict unlikely. However, there are forces in the United States that believe it will be possible to win a naval war against China without escalating to nuclear levels, in addition to signs that economic cooperation may be reduced. The main engine of Chinese growth has been to export industrial goods to Western markets, and to use the profits from trade to invest in US government bonds. This may become more difficult in the coming years because political forces are emerging in the West that want to protect domestic industry from flagging out of jobs, at the same time as imports of goods have declined as a result of the financial crisis. China will probably have to develop its own domestic market in order to continue with economic growth.

The main conflict in the region is due to the fact that the United States wants to maintain its military hegemony on the world's oceans, while China wants to challenge this in the South and East China Seas. China's attempts to protect its own security by challenging US hegemony are threatening the neighboring states in the region, which are responding by tying themselves even closer to the US. This is a vicious circle that peace researcher Tønnesson proposes to replace with a good circle, where China is curbing its maritime territorial demands in exchange for the United States withdrawing forces from East Asia.

Important lessons. Explaining the East Asian Peace is an academic work, and the author probably spends a lot of space defending his definition of fred as «absence of armed conflict». To a layman, this seems self-evident. Some points are treated too little, possibly because Tønnesson assumes that the reader already knows the topics. A lot of space is used to review various Western analysts' views on China, but little space for how the Chinese themselves view the situation.

Why does the world allow the United States to act as an imperialist hegemonic power on other continents?

A broader review of what the United States actually does in East Asia could also have been appropriate. It is the violent US military presence, especially after Obama and Clinton's 'turn towards Asia', that appears to be the main cause of the regional tensions, as I see it. Tønnesson is of the opinion that the USA claims to use its power to secure free movement on the world's oceans, but that this also means the possibility of blocking the import routes for countries that end up in conflict with the USA. But why does the world allow the United States to act as an imperialist hegemonic power on other continents?

The long peace in East Asia is well explained in this book, also the many threats to peace, which the author fortunately comes up with a number of suggestions on how to meet. Tønnesson is optimistic that if we can create lasting peace in large regions such as East Asia, we can also succeed in creating peace throughout the world.

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