The Asian Peace Enigma

Paris Peace Forum
15 min readMay 22, 2020

By Kishore Mahbubani [1]

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…