Understanding the East Asian Peace: Informal and formal conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and the South China Sea 1990-2008.

Understanding the East Asian Peace

Author(s): Mikael Weissmann

ISBN: 978-91-628-7966-2

Publisher: University of Gothenburg Press

Year: 2009

Price: free

Reviewed by Craig Smith, PhD Student at the University of British Columbia in Canada

Despite numerous possibilities for conflict in the region, the past three decades have been characterized by peace and accelerated regionalization in East Asia. In Understanding the East Asian Peace, Mikael Weissmann investigates the conflict resolution and peacebuilding processes that have succeeded in achieving this level of peace from 1990 to 2008. This book represents the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of Gothenburg and is the product of more than four years of research, including 21 months of fieldwork, almost all of which was conducted in Beijing, where Weissmann was associated with Renmin University and Peking University.

Weissmann investigates three China-related conflicts in East Asia: The Taiwan issue, the South China Sea, and the Korean nuclear conflict. He asks: “Why is there a relative peace in the East Asian security setting despite an absence of security organizations or other formalized mechanisms to prevent existing conflicts from escalating into violence?” (p. 11). Weissmann then uses these three case studies to determine the reasons behind the peace that has continued in post-Cold War East Asia, which includes China, Taiwan, the Koreas, Japan and the member states of ASEAN. He sees post-Cold War peace as a “paradox” in East Asia, as it is “a region with a history of militarized conflicts, home to many of the world’s longest ongoing militarized problems and a number of unresolved critical flashpoints” (p. 3). The author finds that, in addition to the expected formal processes that are utilized to build international peace, there are a number of particularly important informal processes that characterize peacebuilding in East Asia. Weissmann argues that informal processes have been successful in contributing to peace by building trust and confidence among actors in these cases, thereby shifting the focus from conflict and suspicion towards cooperation. Often secret or ‘behind-the-scene’ elite interactions have played particularly influential roles in these three cases. However, Weissmann also gives due regard to the more complicated processes of economic interaction and regionalization, especially in relation to the work of ASEAN+3.

Interviews make up the base of the author’s empirical material. Over a four year period he conducted interviews with elite insiders in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark. Interviewees included “current and former policymakers, military personnel, and others involved in cross-border interactions or policy” (p. 26). All of these are, of course, state actors, as this study acknowledges economic influences, but rarely ventures beyond the state and its representatives in its analysis.

Weissmann has identified a gap in the literature on the role of informality and informal processes in the dynamics of East Asian peacebuilding. In this respect, Weissmann goes beyond the usual emphasis upon formal peacebuilding methods and undertakes a deep-reading of interstate relations to investigate the cultures and customs that have played a role behind the scenes in this process, especially the Chinese concept of ‘guanxi, “loosely translated to connections” (pp. 64-5). Often due to shortcomings in theoretical approaches, Eurocentric understandings of international relations in East Asia have failed to give proper emphasis to the personal connections which largely determine power in these societies. Due to its concentration on the balance of power and the danger of power vacuums, realism has predicted a situation of constant war in the East Asian region that has not materialized (p. 38). This has led Weissmann to utilize what he calls the “holistic constructivist approach,” and incorporate anthropological methodology into the IR approach.

Although numerous formal and informal processes have had an impact on maintaining peace in East Asia, the common factor that underlies peacebuilding in all of these three cases is “elite interactions” and “back channel negotiations.” East Asia therefore needs to be imagined from a different perspective due to a culturally embedded acceptance of hierarchical structures and the elite-based society that this produces (p. 193). Weissmann’s biggest contribution with this book is clearly his focus on these informal ways in which peace has been maintained in East Asia, although his idea of informality is limited to that between states and seldom considers other actors or the influence of domestic concerns. His reasons for focusing on informality stem from his belief that much IR literature holds a Eurocentric bias in its preference for focusing on formality and formal institutions (p. 8). This is not the only way in which this literature is Eurocentric, but Weissmann’s efforts focus intensely upon this issue to present an important step in exposing the failings in our Eurocentric assumptions.

Of the three case studies, Weissmann’s analysis of the factors behind the Taiwan issue and the South China Sea conflict are particularly interesting. Elite interactions and back channel negotiations clearly had the greatest influence on these two cases. Weissman’s analysis of the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula is not quite as strong, as the case seems to detract from his overall argument. While personal relations between Chinese military and political elite and those from ASEAN and Taiwan have only developed in recent decades, leaders from China and North Korea have a long history of close personal relations. However, even putting the 2010 setbacks aside, it seems that the Chinese elite have often failed in their efforts to build a lasting and positive peace on the Korean Peninsula.

Surprisingly absent from Weissmann’s book is the work of Chinese-language academics on this topic. Despite spending two years in China, only one Chinese text is referenced in his bibliography. Although he does include English-language texts written by Chinese specialists, it would be interesting to know if Chinese academics held similar assumptions to IR specialists from the West, especially as this book is really about China. Understanding the East Asian Peace is very focused on China and is especially strong in describing specific peacebuilding and conflict resolution processes that are particular to China’s international relations. Although Japan is prominently absent from all of these analyses, this absence is acknowledged by Weissmann, who promises more inclusive research in the future. In the meantime, this book provides an important interpretation of the East Asian peace and will be of interest to scholars looking to understand elements of peacebuilding that may be particular to China and its neighbors.