07 April 1994 - 09 April 1994

East Asia: Security, Prosperity and Political Evolution

Chair: Ambassador Richard L Walker

A joint conference with the Southern Center for International Studies, held in Atlanta

We met, in the agreeable setting of Atlanta’s spring, to address a canvas as wide in its way as the city’s renowned Civil War battle-scape. East Asia was a topic of huge scale and diversity, and we could not hope to address every facet; but our discussion managed nevertheless to illuminate a great deal.

We acknowledged that no non-vacuous proposition could apply uniformly region-wide amid such variety and rapid change. Economic transformation, with massive movement of jobs out of agriculture and growth fuelled largely by export drives, was however of continuing intensity and increasing breadth. There was in most countries a profound desire for external peace, as a condition of smooth development, and de-stabilising ideological motivations were generally absent or weak. Politically, national self-confidence was mounting, though many countries faced problems of leadership succession and the long-term impact upon political structures of growing wealth and powerful (and more and more free) communication had still to show itself.

There remained a few potential flashpoints, like the Spratly Islands, and military spending mostly continued to rise, but few general threats to security were apparent save in the Korean peninsula; elsewhere, steady processes of dialogue - whether or not through organised structures like ASEAN - ought to be able progressively to reinforce understanding, trust and the likelihood of common response if military emergency did materialise.

China was naturally a centre-piece of discussion. We were reminded of many reasons for unease about the future there - an ageing central government apprehensive about the future of party control and national cohesion, and tempted accordingly to hard-line response to any challenge; the inexorability of leadership change, yet without clear candidates or ready mechanisms; a population soon to be a hundred million larger than earlier envisaged, and with the unsettling gender distortions of the one-child norm; profound rural unrest, with vast numbers now drifting loose from the land; the problems of habitual corruption, and the lack of any dependably objective law to govern commercial and social life; the lack of realistic and candid debate on options for political evolution amid inescapable social change generating new political demands; the prospect of cyclical down-turn as economic overheating had to be checked - and all this amid a collapsed ideology in a polity whose sheer magnitude was without parallel. And yet.... this was a society of great resilience, of deep underlying self-confidence and of fast-growing wealth. Prediction (or guess) along a simplistic optimism/pessimism dimension would be plainly absurd; and the arguments for seeking by every available means to facilitate China’s assimilation into the regional and global community were in any event compelling.

The other great actor within the region was Japan, now in a state of transition and perhaps re-appraisal - undergoing something like a third revolution, as one participant suggested. Difficult political adjustment was taking place, at a time moreover of little economic growth and of social pressures as job security waned. But basic strengths were still enormous - a people of great homogeneity and high skill levels, well placed to exploit economic opportunity in China, and with unemployment still modest by European standards. Growth might settle to rates lower than in the past, and a high-profile political stance was not be looked for meanwhile; but provided the temptations of protectionism were resisted, Japan could well sustain its part of the implicit bargain - Japanese economic contribution, United States security contribution - that had served the region well for the past two decades.

Was that United States contribution now itself at risk? We heard of the domestic pressures upon the Clinton Administration, and of continuing resentment about trade imbalances - resentments which might still infect US/Japan non-economic relationships and, if trade conflict developed (or crude managed-trade solutions to it took hold), could damage the entire post-Uruguay Round international trading system. We nevertheless heard on almost all sides a firm reaffirmation of US willingness to go on, albeit perhaps rather less saliently, in the role of regional ring-holder and coordinator. No other acceptable candidate for those necessary tasks seemed remotely in sight, given that for well-understood reasons Japan could not (and in no way sought to) be regional hegemon.

Concerns expressed about the trade frameworks stretched well beyond the familiar US/Japan issues. How far was it realistic to expect the world system to accommodate without stress or awkward further adjustment the energies of a region in which, overall, fast-growing economic power expressed itself in export vigour not matched by balancing propensity to consume? And China was in this regard a special problem. We were mostly disposed to conclude - for reasons more political than economic - that China ought to be admitted to the WTO (ex-GATT) system, and certainly that MFN status could not wisely be withdrawn. But considerable unease was voiced about whether China would be a cooperative partner in the system’s management, and indeed whether the central government would prove capable (even if willing) of ensuring commercial behaviour in proper conformity with the rules. 

One or two participants wondered, if the WTO admission and MFN levers were not to be used, what instruments could remain for pressure on China to behave well in such matters as individual human rights and arms sales in the counter-proliferation context. There was however much offsetting scepticism about the linkage theories underlying such concerns; many questioned the prudence and efficacy of attempts to induce desired Chinese behaviour - indeed, the comment was extended to general Western tactics across the region - by artificial inter-subject connections. (At the same time, the opportunity was taken to urge that the West should not seem to acquiesce in suggestions that ultimate human rights were somehow different in East Asia - paths and priorities might be distinctive, but the standards should not be weakened by a false cultural relativism.)

Environmental and social issues were not the easiest part of our debate, but we recognised that their proportionate importance was mounting. Just for example, China faced pollution problems of daunting severity; illicit drugs (and the structures of crime surrounding them) now increasingly threatened the societies of the region itself as well as of its Western markets; populations were both massively expanding in size and ageing in composition; and the menace of AIDS, for all that data about it were mostly conjectural, overhung several countries. In almost all these fields the spread of education and the strengthening of civil society through powerful non-governmental organisations were the best long-term weapons of remedy; and here well-chosen Western aid and advice could undoubtedly help. In these as in other respects, we noted, Europe need not and should not regard itself as involved merely piecemeal and inconsiderably.

A brief conference could not, and far less can this note, do justice to the interest and significance of all the countries of the region. We spoke a good deal of Taiwan, and of the case there for increased flexibility in the practical application of the “one-China” principle; of Korea (our mood there was to beware of simplistic and stark confrontation with the North over the nuclear-weapons issue) and of Hong Kong (about which we were mainly sanguine). We knew that we had said too little about Indonesia’s low-key yet weighty influence, and much too little of Vietnam, Cambodia, Eastern Russia and even Mongolia.

We were conscious throughout that tidy organisational prescriptions for so vast and varied apart of the world could not be reasonable, and that the evolution of international institutions for its management was bound to be uneven and in some degree fragmentary (and certainly not to be prescribed from outside). But while we acknowledged the need to stay on guard for adverse outcomes, our deliberations had detected some gradual convergence of values; and it had vividly reminded us of the region’s multifarious opportunity. The generous hospitality of the Southern Center for International Studies had proved, as we had confidently hoped, to underpin a debate of much richness.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman: Ambassador Richard L Walker
James F Byrnes Professor and Ambassador-in-Residence, and Trustee, Institute of International Studies, University of South Carolina

Mr Alick Longhurst
First Secretary (Political), Australian Embassy, Washington, DC
Professor Robert O’Neill
Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford, and Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford

Mr Andrew Gowers
Foreign Editor (previously Commodities Editor and Middle East Editor (1987-92), Financial Times

Mr Richard L Grant
Head, Asia-Pacific Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London

Mr Christopher Hum
Assistant Under-Secretary of State for N. Asia, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Dr Jonathan Mirsky
East Asia Editor, The Times

Sir Michael Quinlan GCB
Director, The Ditchley Foundation; Appointments in Air Ministry, then Ministry of Defence

Mrs Heather Weeks
Deputy Director, The Ditchley Foundation

Mr Nicolas Wolfers
Group Adviser, Eagle Star Holdings pic

Dr Michael Yahuda
Reader, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science;

Dr Wendy Dobson
Director, Centre for International Business and Professor, Faculty of Management, University of Toronto

Mr Earl G Drake
Vancouver: Executive Vice-President, Canada China Business Council

M Arnaud d’Andurain
Chief specialist on Asia, Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision, Ministère des Affaires Etrangères, Paris

M Alain Vernay
Adviser, Le Figaro (formerly Economics Editor) and Consultant on East Asia to Institut Français des affaires internationales.

Dr Jurgen Rüland
Acting Chairman, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Rostock

The Hon Barrie Wiggham CBE JP
Commissioner, Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office, Washington DC

Professor Yoshihide Soeya
Associate Professor (AssistantProfessor, 1988-91) of WorldPolitics and Japanese Diplomacy, Keio University, Tokyo

Mr Gerald C Hensley
Secretary of Defence, Ministry of Defence, Wellington.

Mr James Wen-Chung Chang
Deputy Ambassador, Republic of China, Coordination Council for North American Affairs

Mr L Desaix Anderson
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureaus of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Department of State

Mr H Brandt Ayers
Editor and Publisher, The Anniston Star

Ms Gail Evans
Senior Vice-President, Executive Producer, CNN Network Booking

Mr Raymond Lucas
Senior Vice-President, Strategic Operations-Chief Strategic Officer, Scientific-Atlanta

Dr James T Myers
Professor, Department of Government and International Studies, and Director, Center for Asian Studies, University of South Carolina

Mr Ed Schroeder
Vice-President, UPS International Operations

Dr Mahendra Srivastava
President, MPS Associates and MPS Financial Group, LLC

Dr Cedric L Suzman
Vice President, Educational Program Director, The Southern Center for International Studies

Dr Jerome Tannenbaum
Chairman and CEO, MIMS, Inc., Nashville, TN

Mr Alan Tonelson
Research Director, Economic Strategy Institute, Washington DC

Dr Donald E Weatherbee
Donald S Russell Professor, of Contemporary Foreign Policy, (specializing in the politics and international relations of Southeast Asia), University of South Carolina

Mr Peter C White
Co-Founder, President and Trustee, The Southern Center for International Studies