War is the inevitable result of constant escalation of structural contradictions between countries. When structural contradictions accumulate to a certain degree, war always breaks out in the area or country where competition is fiercest. During the Cold War, the largest and longest wars in the Asia-Pacific were, respectively, the Korean War and Indo-China War.
Factors conducive to peace have been active in the Asia-Pacific after the Cold War, and regional economies have thrived. Yet peace in the Asia-Pacific remains fragile. Structural contradictions affecting regional security have long existed and have tended to escalate over the past few years. The Russia-Ukraine war is a mirror that may lead Asia-Pacific countries to make rational choices and opt for policies that avoid war and preserve peace.
Making alliances is a popular activity for countries seeking to protect their security interests in the international political system. Yet alliances are two sides of a coin. On one hand they may provide certain security guarantees for allies, but they may also increase the probability of conflict with others outside the alliance. Indeed, Europe did not experience any large-scale battle during the Cold War. This was because two major military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, were preserving equilibrium.
Only NATO has survived in the post-Cold War era, and it has constantly expanded. The reason — as Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary under George W. Bush, once openly explained — was that France and Germany didn’t subscribe to the U.S. strategy and were drifting away from America. In response, the U.S. sought to clip Western Europe’s wings by drawing Eastern European nations into NATO.
NATO’s eastward expansion has exaggerated Central and Eastern European nations’ fear of the Soviet Union and shifted it onto Russia, while Russia hopes to once again become a dominant force in Eurasia, with greater sway within the European security framework. The Ukraine issue has thus become the focus of Russia’s conflict with the West.
From the perspective of power competition, Ukraine is a victim in a game between major powers, as both rising and incumbent major powers are inclined to attack weaker third countries. This is a rational tactic for the incumbent power, which seeks to reinforce its hegemony, and the rising power, which seeks major power status. Of course, Russia’s act of waging war is inconsistent with the UN Charter.
As in Europe, NATO-like alliances also exist in the Asia-Pacific, except that such mechanisms mainly exist in bilateral form. But there have been multilateral alliances in the Asia-Pacific in history. The outbreak of the Korean War drove the Truman Doctrine to begin focusing on U.S. security interests in Asia. So SEATO was established on Feb. 29, 1955, in a bid to contain communism in Asia.
For lack of motivation and dividends, however, SEATO was disbanded in 1977. It was perplexing that Japan and South Korea had never become SEATO members, unlike France, Britain and Australia. By September 2021, the quasi-multilateral security alliance AUKUS emerged. Its purpose is to protect the international order and preserve common interests. But the international community believes it was meant to cope with China.
Meanwhile, NATO has steadily developed relations with Southeast Asian nations. For the first time, the Japanese prime minister and South Korean president both participated in a NATO summit — in June in Madrid. NATO passed a new Strategic Concept at the summit, in which China for the first time was named as a “challenge.” Although the NATO Charter explicitly invites any “European” country to join, NATO members are not European only. Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries could all become formal NATO members.
No authority can prevent war. If they can see a way to win with force, or if force is necessary, countries will resort to war to solve problems. Under threat of war, any country will fight for survival with all the resources at its disposal. My analysis of the causes of war since 1648 shows that peace hinges on changes in the strengths and world outlooks of international actors/countries. When state powers attempt to revise the international order, other countries may react by launching a war.
Through the Russia-Ukraine war, Asian nations may come to understand that the politics of peace in the Asia-Pacific hinge on whether China can form benign interactions with neighboring countries. The more noble the principles cited for containing China are, the more difficult it will be to de-escalate the confrontation and for regional peace to escape the imagery of a “China threat.”
Abusive use of alliances against a third party in the Asia-Pacific will hurt not only oneself but also other countries. Judging from history and current reality, the Asia-Pacific will not become more peaceful with a China of 1.4 billion people trapped in stagnation, nor through hostile interactions with neighboring countries.