My First Post at the Lowy Institute: 3 Non-Predictions for 2014


So this year, I am writing twice a month for the Lowy Institute – a foreign policy and international relations think-tank in Australia. My work will go on their blog-line, called the Interpreter. My author page with them is here. I’ve had Lowy in my own blog-roll (on the right side of this page) for awhile. It is a good site, particularly if you are interested in Australia. Now Lowy is seeking to break out into East Asian politics more generally. I am happy to participate in that, and I would like to thank the Interpreter editor, Sam Roggeveen, for recruiting me. My first post with them, here, was about two weeks ago. Sam had the clever idea to invert the usual ‘predications for the coming year’ pieces that fill January with predictions of things that won’t happen. My own record of predictions on this site (2010, 2010, 2011) are pretty spotty, so this was a nice challenge.

So here are three things that you think might happen in Eat Asia this year, but won’t:

1. There will be no Sino-Japanese war. Any scuffles will be contained.This was would be so destructive, there’s no way the CCP will let the PLA pursue real escalation.

2. North Korea will not change. That might sound like the safest prediction ever, but actually political science and Korea studies have a long history of arguing that NK is about to collapse. But it won’t.

3. ASEAN will stay useless and over-rated. Western liberals and international organization majors really, REALLY need to stop hyping ASEAN. It’s a joke, and it will stay one. The real story in Asia is its refusal to regionalize/organize, not the incipient regionalization westerners are so desperate to find in every meeting of Asian leaders. And don’t even talk to me about ASEM. These are all talk-shops. East Asia is the land of Hegelian nation-state. Get used to it.

Here’s that full essay:


“It’s that time of year, for retrospectives and predictions. Earlier this month, I wrote-up a 2013 retrospective for northeast Asia, so here is a sequel of sorts for 2014. But Sam had the clever idea to flag events that might or should happen, but won’t. That makes this a little more interesting than the usual predictions which are all wrong. So here we go, for northeast Asia again:

1. There will be no Sino-Japanese War

The analogies of China to Wilhelmine Germany are coming hot and heavy now (here, here, here). China is an encircled fast rising state with too much nationalism, territorial grievances, growing military reach, and so on. (I will take up this analogy in detail in a post next month.) Japan is a possible bulwark, but it is struggling to keep up. Russia and India are still too weak to really challenge China. And the US is deeply ambivalent. Since the expansion of China’s air defense identification zone into the East China Sea, analysts increasingly expect some kind of Sino-Japanese clash with the possibility that it might spin out of control. Shinzo Abe seems to be banking his prime ministership on standing up to China. Of all the big security issues in East Asia – Taiwan, North, Korea, Russia’s decline, Indo-Chinese border clashes, China’s claim in the South China Sea – nothing is more dangerous now than the overt balancing between Japan and China.

Thankfully the media-fueled alarmism is likely wrong. I do think incidents in the East China Sea are now a growing probability. But I also have confidence that the Japanese and Chinese governments both can and want to contain such incidents – even without the threat of US interverntion. In other words, both Tokyo and Beijing should be able to prevent local commanders from running away with the game. Both have the state capacity – resources, professionalism, bureaucratic depth – to reign in local risk-taking. Next, I doubt elites in either state really want to go to the brink. Japan is in relative decline to China; a spiraling clash could make that very apparent as it cries out for US help. And China’s reputation as a destination for foreign investment would be set-back dramatically, a containment ring from India to Japan would be triggered, and the US ‘pivot’ to Asia would become a flood.

2. North Korea will not Change

North Korea’s new year messages are famous for seeking better inter-Korean terms. But almost inevitably some manner of blackmail, crisis, outrageous rhetoric about the South, nuclear or missile test, and so on, comes along to sink better prospects. I see no reason to doubt that again this year.

Analysts have a long history of hanging big hopes for North Korea on the slightest changes we see there. (Me included. I too threw around the requisite Gorbachev analogies when Kim Jong Un took over. *sigh* ) We are constantly projecting dates by which North Korea will collapse. But increasingly I think we need to accept that North Korea is actually more stable than we like to admit – a point Bruce Cumings particularly has made many times. The sources of that stability are mystifying. The best explanations I have heard are that: the Kim family cult really has brainwashed the population; the orwellian national security state is astonishingly effective at stamping out any dissent before it begins; or Chinese aid bails out the regime.

My own sense is the final explanation. I think Eastern Europe 1989/90 and Arab Spring demonstrated just how brittle dictatorships really are. North Korea would have to be an enormous outlier to avoid the popular, military, and factional pressures that challenge other autocracies. Nor does the ideology seem that persuasive to me anymore. Kim Il Sung is twenty years dead; his son was responsible for the famine, and his grandson scarcely knew North Korea till five years ago. Jang Song-Taek’s recent ‘factionalism’ tells me North Korea does in fact have internal politics; that is, that unitary ideological state is a myth.

But so long as China is handing out aid and retains its geopolitical interest in North Korea as a ‘buffer’ against South Korea, Japan and the US, then North Korea will be under little pressure to change economically. And regime ideology, built around hostility to the US and its South Korea puppet, does not permit North Korea to meaningfully give up belligerence.

3. ASEAN will not get Congeal to Resist China

Am I the only one who thinks ASEAN is wildly overrated? Indeed, I find the whole narrative of organization and institutionalization in East Asia wildly over-hyped. To me, East Asia is most notably for its lack of organizations. Western liberals, raised on the EU, IMF, UN, and so on, may think these are good solutions to Asia’s geopolitical tensions – and I would agree. But that does not mean Asians do. My own sense is that nationalisms in Asia are way too strong – likely because they often have a very toxic racial element to them. So organizations can be built, sure. Asian states have the money, professional bureaucrats, and interdependence to build them. But they will be (are) incredibly shallow. They are talk-shops.

And nothing illustrates this problem like ASEAN, which inexplicably captures enormous amounts of scholarly and media attention despite doing almost nothing. It is about two-thirds the age of the EU, but has accomplished perhaps ten percent what that organization has – no free trade zone, no currency coordination, no alliance, no joint passport. Chinese pressure on the South China Sea should be pushing the ASEAN states toward each other. But the organization is so soft, that states like Vietnam and the Philippines are amazingly looking to the US – across the ocean – instead of to their proximate neighbors. It is time to ignore ASEAN.”

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