By Kishore Mahbubani [1]

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Something strange is happening in Asia. The region that is experiencing the greatest power shifts, namely East Asia, is experiencing peace. The region that has been geopolitically dominated by the West, namely West Asia, is experiencing war and conflict. What explains this unusual pattern of war and peace? This essay will dive into the deeper historical forces that are leading to peace in the East and war in the West of Asia.

To begin with, the logic of history tells us that East Asia should be at war. Several leading Western scholars have predicted this. Richard K. Betts has said that “one of the reasons for optimism about peace in Europe is the apparent satisfaction of the great powers with the status quo,” while in East Asia there is “an ample pool of festering grievances, with more potential for generating conflict than during the Cold War, when bipolarity helped stifle the escalation of parochial disputes.” Aaron L. Friedberg says, “While civil war and ethnic strife will continue for some time to smoulder along Europe’s peripheries, in the long run it is Asia that seems far more likely to be the cockpit of great power conflict. The half millennium during which Europe was the world’s primary generator of war (as well as wealth and knowledge) is coming to a close. But, for better or for worse, Europe’s past could be sia’s future.” Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal also said that “Asia is in danger of heading back to the future,” one fraught with tension and conflict. They add that “Europe, in particular, and the west, in general, constitute advanced and richly developed international societies. What is distinctive about Asia is its combination of several industrialised societies with a regional international society so impoverished in its development that it compares poorly with even Africa and the Middle East”.[2] Several decades have passed since these confident predictions were made that East Asia was ripe for conflict. Yet instead of war, peace has reigned. Why?

It would be foolish to give single factor explanations. Asia, especially Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, is a complex place. Several factors have contributed to peace, including China’s strategic commitment to go for a peaceful rise; the rules-based international order gifted by the West after World War II; the culture of pragmatism inherent in many East Asian cultures and, perhaps the sheer luck in having thoughtful and deep strategic thinkers and leaders in Asia, including great men like Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew.

China’s contributions to the peace dynamic is particularly critical. Napoleon famously warned, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. The West ignored Napoleon’s wise advice. It didn’t just wake up China. It trampled all over China, led by the British in the famous Opium War in 1842. In an even more horrifying act, British and French forces looted, sacked and destroyed the Summer Palace in 1860, destroying in the process art and historical antiquities worth about a thousand Notre Dames. The Chinese suffered a bitter century of humiliation from 1842 to 1949. They haven’t forgotten it. As recently as March 2020, the Financial Times correspondent, Jamil Anderlini met a young Chinese child who asked him, in deep anguish, “Why did you burn down the Summer Palace?”

With so much suffering and humiliation, China should have re-emerged as an angry fire-breathing dragon. Instead it committed itself to a peaceful rise. Deng Xiaoping, a wise leader, wisely advised his people to swallow humiliation and insults, keep a low profile and strive for success. China could have been provoked by many events in the past forty years: President Clinton’s decision to send aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits in 1996; the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999; the close encounters with Japanese naval vessels in the Diaoyutai/ Senkaku Islands from September 2012, through much of 2013, which Christopher Hughes, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) calls “the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarised conflict”.[3] Each of these events could have triggered a war, or even a skirmish. Yet of all the great powers in world history, especially among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, China is the only one that hasn’t fought a war in 40 years (since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979).

This Chinese military restraint is also explained by a deep seated strategic culture that believes that the best way to win wars is to not fight them. Sun Tzu said that the “best victory is when the opponent surrenders of its own accord before there are any actual hostilities…. It is best to win without fighting.” Henry Kissinger has described well the difference between the Western impulse to seek military victory and the Chinese impulse to secure long-term strategic advantage. He does so by comparing the Western game of chess with the Chinese game of wei qi. As he says, “If chess is about the decisive battle, wei qi is about the protracted campaign. The chess player aims for total victory. The wei qi player seeks relative advantage.”[4] Kissinger then goes on to add “Chinese thinkers developed strategic thought that placed a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached the avoidance of direct conflict.”[5]

This strategic culture partially explains China’s relatively peaceful rise. However, this peaceful rise was also facilitated by the enabling global environment that the West created after World War II. Here, it’s useful to compare the global environment of the late 19th century/early 20th century with that of the late 20th century/early 21st century. When Japan emerged as a great power in the former era, it believed that it had no choice but to conquer territories to secure critical natural resources. When China emerged in the latter era, it abided by the 1945 rules-based order and used trade, instead of conquest, to secure economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, there is now doubt that China has emerged as the biggest beneficiary of the 1945 rules-based order (which partially explains the disillusionment of the Trump Administration with the order). Still, despite this strategic culture and enabling environment, wars could have taken place as East Asia is full of “hot spots”, including the most dangerous border in the world between North and South Korea; the deep distrust between China and Japan; the unresolved Taiwan issue; the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, to name a few. Indeed, in all the four examples mentioned above, there have been close encounters that could have triggered conflicts. Yet peace prevailed.

Some other factors contributed to the prevalence of peace. One of them was an intangible force: a deeply seated culture of pragmatism. Its real meaning can only be brought out by contrasting it with a Western tendency to take ideological positions. This contrast can be applied to a specific East Asian problem: the Korean peninsula. After the Korean War of 1950–53, China became the patron of North Korea and the US the patron of South Korea. For decades, everything was frozen. Yet, when China decided to open up to the world and engage all potential partners, it completely forgot its past ideological differences with South Korea and established diplomatic relations with it in August 1992. The US could have and should have matched this pragmatic act by establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea. Yet, for ideological reasons, the thought didn’t even cross the minds of the Washington DC policymakers at that time.

This culture of pragmatism also explains why Southeast Asia remains in peace. In theory , Southeast Asia should be the most dangerous region on planet earth. No region on planet earth is more diverse. Southeast Asia has served as the crossroads of the world for over 2000 years. The remarkable cultural diversity is a result of this history. At least four major cultural waves have swept through Southeast Asia: the Indian, Chinese, Muslim and Western waves. In a relatively small geographical space, we find 240 million Muslims, 130 million Christians, 200 million Buddhists and 13 million Hindus. One well-known British historian, C.A. Fisher, described the region as the “Balkans of Asia”, adding that the Balkans of Asia were even more diverse than the Balkans of Europe. He predicted trouble for Southeast Asia. If one were looking around the world to find the most promising region for international cooperation, Southeast Asia would have been at the bottom of the list.

Yet, quite amazingly the Balkans of Asia produced the second most successful regional organisation in the world, ASEAN: second only to the European Union in the comprehensive range of activities covered by regional cooperation. Indeed, as I document in a book I co-authored, The ASEAN Miracle, most sophisticated observers, including its founding fathers, believed that ASEAN would flounder and fail, like all its predecessors in Southeast Asia. Many factors, including a common fear of communism, luck and the game of golf, explains its success against the odds. Good leadership helped too. President Suharto, whose mind was steeped in Javanese mysticism, could cooperate with Lee Kuan Yew, a brilliant Anglo-Saxon trained lawyer. What was the bridge that linked these different mental universes? A culture of pragmatism.

Another way to understand East Asia’s universal track record of delivering peace and prosperity is to compare and contrast it with West Asia, which has consistently sustained wars and conflicts. It’s always dangerous to offer single factor explanations. Yet some can be insightful. The fundamental difference between East Asia and West Asia is that while East Asia has been deeply infused with a culture of pragmatism, West Asia (which has remained under Western domination) has been affected by the “trigger happy” culture that the West has generated.

Since the term “trigger happy” culture may be quite provocative, it may be useful to explain it with data. Earlier, I mentioned that China has not fought a war in forty years and not fired a shot in thirty years. By contrast in the last thirty years, since the end of the Cold War (which was supposed to deliver a peace dividend), the US has been involved, directly or indirectly, in the following conflicts, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Panama, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Serbia.

Here’s one small statistic that explains the stark differences between the strategic culture of East and West Asia. In thirty years, from 1989, China has not fired a single bullet across its borders. Yet in the last year of the Presidency of Barack Obama, a relatively peaceful gentleman, the US dropped 26,172 bombs on seven countries. It will probably be impossible to document the total number of bombs that the US has dropped overseas since the end of the Cold War. However, the estimates range from Estimates are hard to find, but the estimated figures for the Obama Presidency are over 100,000 and about 70,000 for the Presidency of George W Bush. When future historians look into this “trigger-happy” habit of dropping bombs, the obvious question they will ask is whether the decision-makers, both civilian and military, who made these decisions thought carefully and strategically before engaging in such behaviour.

Barack Obama was deeply troubled by these militaristic tendencies of the US. Hence, he tried to exercise strategic restraint. Indeed he was vilified for not bombing Syria when the press reported that Bashar Al-Assad had used some chemical bombs in August 2013. Yet, as I ask in “Has China Won?”, “Would it have removed Assad? Probably not. And if Assad had been removed, would the Syrian people have been better off or would they have suffered even greater loss of life, as the Iraqis and Libyans did after earlier Western interventions? What American national interests would have been enhanced by bombing Syria?”

It doesn’t take a strategic genius to see that virtually all Western interventions in West Asia (and North Africa) have been failures. Indeed, many friends of the West have pointed that it was a mistake for the West to continue intervening in West Asia. For example, a leading Indian official, Shyam Saran, wrote this about Western interventions: “In most cases, the post-intervention situation has been rendered much worse, the violence more lethal, and the suffering of the people who were supposed to be protected much more severe than before. Iraq is an earlier instance, Libya and Syria are the more recent ones. A similar story is playing itself out in Ukraine. In each case, no careful thought was given to the possible consequences of the intervention.”. Similarly another Senior Indian official, Shivshankar Menon has observed, “Unilateral (sometimes covert) interventions, as in Libya or Syria, have led to unexpected and dangerous outcomes… We clearly need to improve, strengthen and use the processes and institutions of multilateral consultation and action available to the international community”.

Since it is manifestly clear that virtually all the Western interventions in West Asia have been failures, the obvious question to ask is why has the West continued with its failed policies? Here, to be fair, one should acknowledge that there have been some differences among the leaders in the West. For example when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in March 2003, the leaders of France and Germany, Chirac and Schroder, opposed it with great personal courage. They were proven right. Iraq proved to be a catastrophic failure, costing the US trillions of dollars, trillions of dollars it could ill afford as the bottom 50% of the US population were suffering a decline in their standard of living then. The lesson was clear: Western interventions in Islamic countries in the Middle East lead to disasters. Despite this clear lesson, the West continued intervening. France participated in Libya (2011) and Syria (2014 to present). Germany participated in Syria. Germany however refused to send direct troops to Libya. It allowed usage of its military installations and contributed money. More disasters followed. Indeed, sadly, the lives of ordinary people in Libya and Syria have become worse since these interventions.

The obvious question here is: can the West learn from three decades of mistakes and stop intervening militarily in the affairs of Islamic states in West Asia and North Africa. Several Western scholars, including Andrew Bacevich (correct), John Mearsheimer, Steve Walt, have persuasively argued for the cessation of such interventions. Bacevich for instance writes, “In Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, among other places, intervention has produced not stability, but instability. Indeed, ISIS itself numbers among the poisonous fruits of George W. Bush’s recklessly conceived invasion of Iraq, further compounded by the grotesquely mismanaged occupation that followed. However well-meaning our intentions, we have succeeded in making matters worse.”

The moral paradox here is that these Western interventions in West Asia are not driven by any evil motive to wreak harm and destruction. Instead, they are driven by a noble desire to help these societies by removing their evil dictatorial rulers. When one is motivated to engage in noble deeds, cost-benefit calculations do not come into play. And this brings us to the crux of the different approaches of Western minds and Eastern minds on issues of war and peace. The West believes that the ideological goal of promoting democracy should trump any pragmatic considerations. The East believes that pragmatic calculations, rather than ideological considerations, should guide policy making. This simple difference in perspectives explains why West Asia is experiencing war and conflict and East Asia is enjoying peace.

So where does all this leave South Asia, the large and populous region that is geographically located between West and East Asia? The simple answer is that South Asia is torn between ideological impulses of the West and the pragmatic impulses of the East. Two case studies will demonstrate how this region is torn. The first involves the former West and East Pakistan; the second, India.

When West and East Pakistan were separated in 1971, conventional wisdom in the world, including the West was clear. West Pakistan would succeed. East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, would fail. Henry Kissinger captured this conventional wisdom well with his remark that Bangladesh would remain a “basket case” country. Indeed, all the objective factors pointed in that direction. As the Cold War accelerated, West Pakistan became a favoured child of the West especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Pakistan was showered with massive amounts of aid, reaching nearly US$ 5 billion through the 1980s. Bangladesh, by comparison, received crumbs. Pakistan was temporarily dropped as a geopolitically favoured child after the Cold War ended. However, when 9/11 happened in 2001, and when the US decided to invade Afghanistan, Pakistan again became a favourite child of the West especially the US Bangladesh has never been a strategic priority of the West.

Almost fifty years have passed since the separation. Has West Pakistan or East Pakistan done better? The Data gives the answer. In 1971, when the two separated, the per capita GDP of West Pakistan was 1.6 times larger than that of East Pakistan. Today the per capita GDP of Bangladesh is higher than Pakistan, since 2016. Why did Bangladesh succeed against all odds, enjoying an average economic growth rate of over six per cent per year for over three decades? [GDP Growth Rate in Bangladesh averaged 5.69 percent from 1994 until 2016. If we include only the past decade it has been over 6%] Many factors probably contributed but one clear contrast stands out. Pakistan became involved in several military struggles involving the West. Indeed, its military budget, on a percentage of GDP, was 4 % in 2018, making it one of the highest in the world. Bangladesh, by contrast, didn’t get involved in any Western-led military conflicts. Instead, it plugged its economy into the pragmatic environment of East Asia, attracting foreign investment, like South East Asia, to fuel its economic growth.

This case study of West and East Pakistan makes one lesson clear. Involvement with Western military adventures does not pay off, as proven by Pakistan. Involvement with Eastern pattern of economic development pays off, as proven by Bangladesh. One of the paradoxical good fortunes of Bangladesh was that it was neglected by the West.

The Indian case study is the most interesting. Since it is geographically located between West Asia and East Asia, it is clearly torn, politically and psychologically, between the impulses coming from the West and the East. It has also been caught in geopolitical cross-currents. During the Cold War, when the West aligned itself with a communist China and a military dictatorship in Pakistan, the world’s largest democracy, India, was shunned by the West. Today, with China emerging as the key geopolitical rival of the US, India has become a geopolitical priority for the US. Indeed, since the end of the Cold War, India has been steadily courted by all US Presidents, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Such courtship can be very seductive. Many powerful and influential voices in the Indian strategic establishment are calling on India to establish a strategic partnership, if not an implicit alliance, with the US to confront China. The deep suspicions between India and China add further momentum to this call. Clearly, in the next decade India will have to make some clear strategic choices. These will be fateful choices.

Before making this choice, it may be good for India to investigate more deeply the key question that this essay has tried to answer. Why have the countries to the West of India suffered so many conflicts and no economic miracle growth stories? Why have the countries to the East of India enjoyed so many economic miracle growth stories and so few conflicts relatively speaking? This essay has only just begun to explore some key differences in the underlying dynamics of West and East Asia. Nonetheless one lesson is clear. East Asia, both Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, have done well because they have been pursuing pragmatic paths in their political and economic policies.

Despite this clear lesson, many in the West would still prefer India to join the West rather than the East. Superficially, it would appear that the two pillars of the West, Europe and America, would share a common long-term interest in pulling India towards the West. Actually, their interests diverge. If India leans towards the West, the US would gain because it would win a strong partner to counterbalance China, its main geopolitical rival. If India leans towards the East, Europe would gain because, if India joins the pragmatic economic success stories of the East, it could become a vital bridge transmitting the pragmatic culture of East Asia to West Asia. A West Asia (and later North Africa) full of East Asian style economic success stories would be a major geopolitical gift to Europe. This is why Europe should both understand and support the East Asian story of peace.

[1] Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, NUS, is the author of the forthcoming book, Has China Won? (Public Affairs, 2020). This essay contains excerpts from two earlier book, The Great Convergence: Asia, the West and the Logic of One World (Public Affairs, 2014) and The ASEAN Miracle (NUS Press, 2017).

[2] Kishore Mahbubani, “The Pacific Way,” Foreign Affairs, 1995, Vol. 74, no.1: pp. 100–111.

[3] BBC, “Viewpoint: How series are China-Japan tensions,” 8 February 2013,

[4] Henry Kissinger, On China, London: Allen Lane, 2011, p. 23.

[5] Kissinger, p. 25.

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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