International Peace in Asia: Will it Endure?

International Peace in Asia: Will it Endure? 1

Post 1945 Asia has been conflict ridden.2 Between 1945 and 2010, there were a total of 71 major wars (in which battle deaths exceed 1,000), of which 15 were inter-state wars, 47 intrastate wars, 6 wars of liberation against colonial rule, and 3 non-state wars. There were also approximately 23 minor inter-state wars (25 to 999 battle deaths) and 24 military incidents (less than 25 battle deaths). In all, about 2 million combatants were killed in inter-state wars, 1.9 million in intrastate wars, and about 400,000 in anti-colonial struggles. These figures do not include civilian deaths—especially high in intra-state wars. They also do not include civilian deaths from state oppression, massacres, massive policy failures, and genocide. Compared to the global average, from 1950 to 2000, Asia had five times as many conflict years (including all militarized inter-state disputes), eight times as many fatal-dispute years, and ten times as many war years.3

Asia continues to face numerous internal and international security challenges that have or could result in the use of military force. Long-running conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, and between Pakistan and India remain unresolved. A large number of territorial disputes remain, some between major countries including China, India, Japan, and Russia. The rapid rise of Asian countries (especially China), continuing historical animosities, the spread of nuclear weapon and ballistic missile capabilities, and international terrorism reinforce existing security concerns as well as pose new strategic challenges, while sustained rapid economic growth along with increased scientific and technological prowess has enabled Asian countries to develop sophisticated military capabilities. Citing these challenges and perceived institutional weaknesses in comparison with post-World War II Europe, observers—especially in the West—opined in the 1990s that Asia was “ripe for rivalry” and Europe’s past (war torn nineteenth century) would or could be its future.4 They envisioned a dangerous region in which rivalry, power-balancing, conflict, and war would be endemic. The continued rise of China (and its aggressiveness in the pursuit of disputed territorial claims) in the context of the perceived weakness of the United States in Asia as well as rising nationalism and possible miscalculation continue to fuel prognostications of conflict and war in Asia.5

In contrast to those dire warnings, this article makes two claims. First, Asia has witnessed a substantial reduction in the number of major and minor inter-state wars. After reaching a peak in the 1970s, major inter-state war has declined in number, frequency, and intensity measured in terms of battle deaths. From 1979 to 2014, there were only two major inter-state wars compared to 13 in 1945 to 1979. Connected to earlier wars, the nature, purpose, scope, and outcome of these wars since 1979 reinforce rather than undermine my central claim that Asia has witnessed substantial decline in major wars.6 It has even enjoyed a long period of peace, comparable in duration, nature, and complexity to the “long peace” of the Cold War in Europe.7

Second, the long peace in Asia will continue in the foreseeable future. Entrenched conflicts will likely remain unresolved with a few becoming even more acute. The Asian strategic environment will become more complex with growing economic interdependence, cross-cutting links, and some new security challenges. And, armed clashes cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, major war in Asia is unlikely in the coming decade or two. I made these claims about a decade ago.8 I am now even more convinced and set them out in this article to balance the growing chorus—now, also in Asia—of conflict and war in Asia.

What explains the substantial decline in the frequency of major war in Asia and the claim that the inter-state peace that has endured in Asia since 1979 will continue in the foreseeable future? These are the central questions animating this article, which advances three related arguments:

1. Decline in the number and intensity of inter-state wars in Asia since 1979 is due largely to the growing legitimacy of the Asian political map, rising nationalism, focus on and success in economic growth, and the development of effective deterrence in relevant dyads. Together, these developments reduced the salience as well as altered the role of force, more specifically war, in the international politics of Asia.

2. Factors that underpinned the decreasing frequency of inter-state war will continue to be salient in the foreseeable future and sustain the long peace in Asia. A development that could substantially alter the strategic environment would be a shift in military technology and strategy from deterrence to offense. Such a shift would make war more costly, but also restore it as a rational instrument of policy in pursuit of certain political objectives.

3. The international peace that has prevailed in Asia, as in Europe during the Cold War, is of the minimal type (absence of major war but not devoid of competition, conflict, minor war, and military incidents). That is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Stronger peace would require resolution of outstanding disputes, which appears unlikely.

Before developing these arguments, the article identifies limitations in structural and liberal explanations of war and peace, and substantiates the claim of relative peace since 1979.

War and peace: Limitations of structural and liberal explanations

Structural explanations by themselves cannot explain war and peace in Asia since 1945. Anarchy (deep structure) and distribution of power are two key concepts deployed by realists to explain security and war. Peace does not feature prominently in realist theories, except possibly as a consequence of a certain type of hegemony (which makes sense only if the ideational component is invoked) or certain balances in the distribution of power. Neorealists use anarchy to explain security dilemmas and the recurrence of inter-state war; however, as a constant in a system of sovereign states, anarchy cannot explain change, including a growing sense of security and transitions to peace. Even neorealists admit they cannot explain the occurrence of specific wars, leaving it of limited intellectual or policy significance. The distribution of power (unipolarity, bipolarity, and multipolarity), a favorite of classical realists, suffers limitations in explaining war and peace in Asia too. There is no agreement as to which distribution is conducive to peace.9 In Asia, a high incidence of war, a transition to inter-state peace, and the termination of some inter-state and intra-state wars, but the persistence of others, all occurred during a structure of military bipolarity from 1945 to 1991.10 Inter-state peace broke out at different times and varied by sub-region, preceding the structural transformation to unipolarity in 1991. Realist theories continue to have a strong hold on policy makers and think tank communities. Especially power transition and hegemonic theories, which have been deployed to understand and project consequences of the ongoing change in distributions of power, underlie the claim that Asia is headed for conflict and war. The consequence of nuclear weapons for the theory of hegemonic war and the difficulties associated with power transition theories appear to be underplayed or overlooked.

In contrast to realist theories, most liberal theories are unit-level, relying on the type of political (liberal-democratic, authoritarian, or illiberal) or economic (market-oriented capitalist or mercantilist) system. Their focus is on explaining peace. War is explained in negative terms. In liberal-democratic theory, the normal condition among liberal democracies is peace. War occurs only between non-democratic states or between democratic and illiberal states. These theories (democratic peace, commercial liberal peace, sociological liberal peace) do not fare much better in explaining war and peace in a region with diverse political systems. There have been very few democracies in Asia; yet, the region has experienced peace since about 1979. Despite China and Taiwan being Leninist-authoritarian states until the 1970s, they have not gone to war since 1958. Likewise, North and South Korea (the latter until the 1980s) were totalitarian-authoritarian states, but there has not been a war since 1953.

The connection between economics, security, and war is complex. A high level of economic interdependence (commercial liberal theory), as between China and Taiwan, may increase the cost of war, moderate the intensity of political conflict for a certain period and buy time, but it cannot resolve or mitigate political conflict in perpetuity. Eventually, a political solution is required. High levels of economic interdependence have not prevented rising security concerns (China-Japan, China-United States, China-Taiwan, China-South Korea, and South Korea-Japan). Likewise, the relationship among economics, politics, security, and war in the domestic arena is complex. Strong economic performance may provide the basis for political legitimacy and stability, especially for governments in authoritarian systems, but only for a limited time. Continued success has the potential to undermine their legitimacy and stability claims, as was the case in Taiwan and South Korea. Strong economic performance alone cannot resolve identity and sovereignty contestations, which in the domestic arena are commonly labeled as minority or center-periphery conflicts. Despite 20 years of strong economic growth, Suharto’s Indonesia could not resolve the Aceh problem. Strong national economic growth and centralization of power, in fact, aggravated that conflict. Resolution required political re-imaginations including autonomy-based solutions that became more possible in subsequent administrations. Sustained strong economic performance, however, can strengthen the state, which can have far reaching internal and international ramifications. But the relationship between good economic performance and international behavior of states is double-edged. Focus on economic development through participation in regional and global economies (to access international capital and markets) would argue for maintenance of a peaceful international environment. However, success could also enable countries to build up their national military capabilities, making settlement of international disputes through war more attractive. Continued success in economic performance in major countries like China can bring change in the international distribution of power and stimulate behavior that does not augur well for international stability. Commercial liberal theory is, thus, of limited value in explaining the outbreak and maintenance of peace.

Peace in Southeast Asia is incorrectly attributed to sociological liberalism or, specifically, the ASEAN Way. That approach fails to take account of the fact that peace in maritime Southeast Asia was a consequence of internal political change in Indonesia in 1965 that terminated its confrontation with Malaysia prior to the 1967 formation of ASEAN. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia did not individually possess capabilities to fight and win wars even if there were disputes meriting resort to war. Peace in continental Southeast Asia followed the Vietnamese withdrawal from Laos and Cambodia. ASEAN membership came later. The ASEAN Way had little or no effect in continental Southeast Asia. Cuts in Soviet assistance to Vietnam, intensified Sino-Vietnamese conflict, and Vietnam’s overreach were more relevant in explaining Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia and Laos. Failure to appreciate such facts gives false credence to the claims of ASEAN propagandists, who overplay ASEAN’s role in preserving peace in the sub-region

From war to relative peace

After peaking in the 1970s, the number, frequency and intensity of wars in Asia declined substantially, as seen in Table 1. The two later major wars (the 1987 Sino-Vietnamese border war and the 1991 India-Pakistan War in the Kargil district in Indian Kashmir) were limited in purpose, scope, duration, and outcome. They reinforce the claim that war ceased to be a rational instrument of state policy in resolving inter-state disputes in Asia from the late 1970s.


Table 1. Major Inter-state Wars in Asia (1945-2010)



There were 9 war dyads in Asia, all commencing before 1979 (Table 2). Of these, four (US-North Vietnam, Vietnam-Cambodia, Vietnam-Laos, and Vietnam-China) have ended. The inter-Korean and China-Taiwan dyads are stalemated, although they continue as highly militarized inter-state disputes. Despite breaches and standoffs, the Sino-Indian border dispute is being handled through bilateral negotiations; war appears unlikely. With the Chinese invasion/liberation and occupation of Tibet in 1950, the Sino-Tibetan dispute became an internal one with continuing peaceful resistance to Chinese rule, which like that of the Uighurs, has the potential to become violent, but not to lead to international war. Only the India-Pakistan dyad continues to be war prone. There have been four wars in that dyad, three over Kashmir and one arising from rebellion in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Even that dyad has experienced an “ugly” peace since 1999.11 Overall, the number of war dyads in Asia has reduced dramatically. The prospect for war in the dyads appears highly unlikely, and there has been no new inter-state war dyad. Though there are strong elements of competition in the US-China relationship, it does not qualify as a war dyad for now. Despite many points of tension, deterrence and uncertainty in outcome are among the reasons why war between these two countries appears highly unlikely.


Table 2. War Dyads in Asia (1945-2010)



Along with substantial decline in major wars, there has been a decline in minor interstate wars in Asia (Table 3) as well as settlement of several inter-state disputes through war or negotiations. Asia has experienced relative inter-state peace since 1979, although the beginning of peace varies by sub-region. Northeast Asia has not experienced a major war since the 1958 military clash between the PRC and Taiwan, and maritime Southeast Asia has not witnessed a war since the termination of the Indonesian confrontation against Malaysia in 1965. Peace in continental Southeast Asia was a later development, beginning sometime in the late 1980s after the punitive Chinese attack on Vietnam in 1979 and subsequent stalemate in the Sino-Vietnamese dyad. Peace between these two countries was formalized in the land border treaty signed in 1999. The “ugly peace” peace in South Asia dates from after the 1999 Kargil War, although there was no major war in this dyad for 28 years between 1971 and 1999.


Table 3. Minor Inter-state Wars in Asia (1945-2010)



Explaining conflict and war in Asia

Internal and international contestation over the legitimacy of nations and states along with weak state capacity was the driver of numerous internal and international wars in post 1945 Asia and external intervention in some of them. System-level factors (ideological contestations between great powers and distribution of power) played an important role in some conflicts, but were not the primary cause of war. Causation was largely local. System-level variables were significant in defining the international context, stimulating and facilitating certain external interventions as well as in prolonging certain conflicts, but did not cause conflict or war.12 This is reflected by the fact that termination of the Cold War did not end these conflicts and wars.

With the exceptions of Japan, Thailand and Nepal, Asian countries gained their independence from colonial rule in the post 1945 era.13 Upon independence, incumbent governments embarked on nation and state building projects that were contested by rival political groups that also had deep roots in the struggle for independence. Many became violent struggles—in heartlands over the type of state and between the center and periphery over the composition and identity of the nation. Irreconcilable constructions of nations and states severely undermined the legitimacy of some countries. China-Taiwan, North Vietnam-South Vietnam/US, India-Pakistan, and North Korea-South Korea conflicts became inter-state. The China-Taiwan conflict has its origins in the civil war over the right to rule China. It became inter-state with the establishment of the KMT in Taiwan and US support for that regime in the context of the Cold War. Such support along with the growing internal and international legitimacy of Taiwan prevented forcible unification. The conflict is now primarily over the status, identity, and sovereignty of Taiwan.

Likewise, clashing constructions of nations and/or states inform the continuing conflicts between North and South Korea and India and Pakistan. The outbreak of the Korean War was embedded in the Cold War ideological confrontation and PRC calculations of Chinese national interest. With the end of the Cold War and improvement in Soviet/Russian and Chinese relations with South Korea, clashing constructions of the Korean nation and state have come to the fore. Both North and South Korea seek unification and constructing the successor Korean state on their own terms. Some attribute the outbreak of the Korean War to great power competition, but great powers intervened in support of rival Korean groups. Termination of the Cold War did not end this conflict. The Korean conflict evolved with contention over unification and identity of the successor Korean state. US-China interests and competition and the North Korean nuclear problem matter, but are not at the core of the conflict. The conflict between India and Pakistan is rooted in the construction of two nation-states upon partition of British India with focus on the status of Kashmir. Islamabad envisages Muslim majority Kashmir as an integral part of Islamic Pakistan, whereas secular India sees it as an integral part of the Indian nation and state based on the accession by the ruler of that state at the time of independence. Since 1953, there has been no war on the Korean Peninsula, and there has been no outbreak of war across the Taiwan Strait since the 1958 PRC shelling of Quemoy and Matsu under Taipei’s control. The India-Pakistan dyad has been more war prone, but the frequency and intensity of war have dropped sharply. The driver of most inter-state wars in Asia has been the clashing construction of nations and states.

Clashing constructions of nation and state underlay the war between North Vietnam and US-supported South Vietnam. The 1954 Geneva accords temporarily divided Vietnam along the 17th parallel into North Vietnam and the State of Vietnam. The latter , together with the United States rejected the partition. Though Hanoi signed the accords, partition was not the goal sought by Ho Chi Minh. He envisaged a united Vietnamese nation with a socialist state under the control of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Saigon too envisaged a united Vietnamese nation but under its control. Both exploited Cold War ideological and strategic struggles for their benefit. Viewing the conflict primarily through the Cold War lens, beginning in the early 1960s, the United States intervened militarily in support of South Vietnam before becoming a direct protagonist against North Vietnam, which had strong backing from the Soviet Union and China. External military intervention intensified, prolonged, and internationalized the war, but the cause of the war was local. Exhaustion on the part of the United States and the ensuing doctrine that Asian countries must become more self-reliant for their security (the Guam or Nixon doctrine) led to the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 and American disengagement. Subsequently, North Vietnam “liberated” South Vietnam in 1975, and unified the Vietnamese nation under communist rule. Since then, the legitimacy of the Vietnamese nation, its communist system of government, and international sovereignty of Vietnam have no longer been objects of international contestation.

Explaining the transition to peace

Growing international legitimacy, economic development, and greater state capacity explain the declining utility of war as an instrument of state policy and the reduced frequency of war in Asia. The Asian political map was highly uncertain in the early post-1945 era, but, before long, some contestations were resolved through war or negotiations. The international legitimacy of Malaysia, Singapore, Bangladesh, and unified Vietnam, and the independence of Cambodia, Laos, and East Timor, which were previously contested, became more accepted. Concurrently, the internal legitimacy of political systems and governments became stronger. Contestations by communist parties in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia weakened and then terminated. Democratic governments replaced authoritarian ones in South Korea and Taiwan. The growing international and domestic legitimacy of Taiwan “normalized” one stalemate, as the enduring division of the Korean Peninsula did another. A few countries may still disappear. A few new countries may appear as a consequence of internal contestation. A small number of countries may experience territorial change. Yet, over time the Asian political map has stabilized. International recognition along with rising nationalism and growing state capacity increased national resilience. Invasions, conquests and domination through war became politically, diplomatically, and economically costly and normatively unacceptable. Asian countries became more secure. Their international survival was no longer in question. The survival of even small countries like Brunei was assured.

Beginning with Japan and the Newly Industrializing Economies (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore), Asian countries, embracing the capitalist path and participating in regional and global economies, experienced rapid economic growth, which later spread to other countries including the ASEAN 5, China and India. Focus on economic development required a peaceful, stable, and cooperative international environment that made war costly. It also strengthened state capacity, including the administrative and physical reach of the state, and contributed to greater national resilience, leaving states less vulnerable to external intervention. Successful economic growth enabled greater allocations for military modernization and strong deterrent capabilities against external threats to sovereignty. Those confronting superior adversaries have chosen to develop their own capabilities, including nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and cyber know-how, to ally with external powers like the United States, or to engage all major powers to ensure a power balance and prevent domination of the sub-region by any single power. Deterrence has stalemated acute conflicts (China-Taiwan, India-Pakistan, North-South Korea), preventing war.

Increasingly, deterrence (conventional and nuclear) has become the dominant strategy of nearly all Asian countries (small and big) and the mainstay of peace in Asia. Although China is vastly superior to Taiwan in many dimensions of power, and use of force to achieve unification remains a key element of Chinese policy, it has been deterred by the international legitimacy of Taiwan, Washington’s support for Taipei, and the attendant political, diplomatic, and economic costs of engaging in war. Even if it chooses war, success is not assured. Failure would almost certainly have adverse consequences for the CCP’s domestic legitimacy and for Beijing’s international aspirations. Deterrence (including the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea) has also prevented war on the Korean Peninsula and acted as a strong restraint in the India-Pakistan dyad.

A consequence of the above changes, notably the acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities, has been transformation in the role of military force in Asian international politics. It has become much less an offensive tool or relevant in the resolution of political and economic disputes. Instead, defending one’s existing territory and deterring external threats have become the primary role of armed forces. Yet, armed clashes, including minor wars, could be used in the service of a strategy of salami slicing. Countering such tactics as well as countering threats posed by militant non-state actors requires more specific deterrents including offensive capabilities.

Will peace endure?

Peace defined as the absence of major war will endure in the foreseeable future. Although changing distributions of power, growing military capabilities, continuing disputes and the emergence of new challenges will likely create an unsettling environment for many countries and fuel talk of war, war in Asia is unlikely to materialize. Excessive attention to the rise of China and attendant change in the international distribution of power have privileged realist theories like power transition and hegemony, whose primary focus is on change through war. That focus has diverted attention from the root cause of war, peace, cooperation, and order in the region. The rise of China should be put in perspective. The primary driver of war in post 1945 Asia has been the contested legitimacy of nations and states, not the weakness or rise of China.

Inter-state peace in Asia will endure due to the increasing international legitimacy of countries, a continued focus on economic growth and development, growing national resilience and state capacity, and maintenance of effective deterrence. The political map of Asia has been relatively stable over the last thirty years. Increasing international legitimacy along with respect for the principles of territorial integrity and political independence implies that the Asia political map will change only gradually. Changes will be a consequence of internal political developments, not inter-state war. Fundamental change (the appearance of new countries or disappearance of existing ones) will be driven by the outcome of domestic contestation over the type of political system and the identity of the national political community. Only minor territorial changes may occur as a consequence of inter-state armed conflict. Invasion, conquest, and domination through war have become features of the past, but that does not mean obsolescence of the use of force.

For various reasons (political legitimacy, poverty eradication, resolution of domestic conflict, desire to achieve developed country status, the need to end stagnation, aspirations for national power and influence), economic growth will continue to be the priority for several more decades. Participation in regional and global economic systems to mobilize factors of production and access markets will remain key features of the economic policies of Asian countries. Internationalist orientations argue for a peaceful and stable environment. State capacities can be expected to increase and, along with rising nationalism, to make countries less vulnerable to international intervention. Resorting to war to resolve inter-state disputes with no certainty of success will be costly. Deterrence will continue to inform national security strategies of most countries in the region. It has prevented war even in acute conflicts on the Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, and between India and Pakistan. Deterrence (especially nuclear deterrence) will play a key role in preventing the outbreak of war between China and the United States, China and India, China and Japan, and Japan and Russia. Constant efforts must be made to review, renew, and upgrade it, including extended deterrence in the context of changing political and strategic circumstances, changing military technology, and development of new capabilities. While strategic deterrence can prevent major inter-state wars, it cannot prevent minor wars, military incidents, or militant activities by non-state actors. Military capabilities and confidence building measures must be developed to deal with these situations. General and specific deterrence strategies, capabilities, and crisis management among key players must command greater attention.

The claim that peace in Asia will endure is not a linear projection. The political map is not a constant. Further, as states become weaker and do not have monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, the number of non-state actors employing violence as a means to achieve their political purposes could multiply and become an even more significant part of the international system. Military technology also does not stand still, affecting the content and means of international interactions and their outcomes. Yet, factors that have contributed to peace in Asia over the last three decades are likely to continue into the foreseeable future.

Type of peace

The international peace that has prevailed in Asia over the last 35 years and, which I argue will endure, is minimalist, characterized by the absence of major war. It does not preclude military competition, rivalry, conflict, minor wars, and military incidents or threats posed by non-state actors. Use of military force in inter-state relations will be primarily in the service of defense. Deterrence has become the dominant strategy. Peace resting on deterrence, however, is prone to risks, including arms races, and could precipitate crisis situations. Thus, peace in Asia should move beyond deterrence, requiring resolution of underlying disputes. Where contention is over sovereignty and identity, resolution requires political imagination and more flexible notions of sovereignty and identity, enabling greater decentralization of power as well as acceptance of multiple identities, even new nations and states through constitutional processes. Conflict settlement/resolution mechanisms should be put in place, such as arbitration by third parties. Shelving disputes to be resolved by the next generation is tantamount to passing the buck or even a delaying tactic to buy time and more favorable conditions for certain parties. Political leaders instead should agree to resolve underlying issues through fixed time negotiations or arbitration. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have been able to resolve some contentious issues through arbitration. Rather than find excuses, Asian leaders should seek to go beyond “minimalist” peace.


Endemic contestations of nations and states along with weak national resilience and state capacity underscored the high incidence of intra- and inter-state wars in Asia in the early post World War II era. Increasing internal and international legitimacy of nations and states, growing national resilience, and growing state capacity along with the development of strong deterrence explain the decrease in inter-state war and internal wars in the political heartland. Further contestation of nation making in the periphery and relatively weak state capacity in specific countries explain the persistence of numerous center-periphery conflicts in Asia. Increasing state capacity and international support have made it possible to develop strong deterrents against external threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nuclear deterrence has become the mainstay of peace in certain dyads. The role of force has been transformed in Asian international politics. War is no longer a rational instrument of state policy for resolving political disputes, enhancing welfare, or growing the economic strength of countries. Preserving the international status quo has become the dominant international norm. The continued salience of unit-level variables that contributed to the transition to international peace implies that the prevailing relative peace will endure. Attempting to change the status quo through war will remain costly, whether for a leading power or a rising power. Deterrence must be continually renewed and upgraded. Arms control must take due note of the requirements of deterrence, as was the case during the Cold War.

A stronger peace appears unlikely. Outstanding disputes on the Korean Peninsula, across the Taiwan Strait, and between India and Pakistan are grounded in contestations of identities and sovereignties of nations and states. Protagonists appear committed to using force to achieve their purposes. Thus, deterrence is likely to continue as the preferred strategy, even if it requires much more attention in the context of the post-Cold War world and ongoing change in the distribution of power in Asia. Purely territorial disputes like those in the East and South China Seas, between Japan and Russia, and between India and China should be more amenable to settlement through compromise in negotiations or through international arbitration. Even here, countries appear to be entrenched in their positions, making compromise extremely difficult if not impossible. They seem determined to preserve the status quo or alter the facts on the ground through force.

If Asian countries are sincerely interested in strengthening peace and creating a favorable environment for development, they should seek to resolve existing disputes through fixed time negotiations or arbitration, instituting confidence-building measures to avoid unintended escalation of incidents and minor wars, engage in serious negotiations to resolve outstanding disputes, and institute mechanisms to enable peaceful change, accepting the emergence of new nations or states through constitutional means. Otherwise, the situation of armed peace resting on deterrence is likely to sustain competition, conflict, minor wars, and military clashes.

In contrast to theories that emphasize system-level factors like anarchy and distribution of power or unit-level considerations like types of political and economic systems, this article argues that unit-level factors like nation and state making along with national resilience and state capacity continue to be the driving factors of war, peace, cooperation, and order in the region. System- level theories assume mature nations and states, whereas nations and states in Asia are still in the making, as demonstrated by the vitality of nationalist movements even in so-called mature nation-states. System-level factors play a secondary role. They may inform, mitigate, or intensify, but they do not supplant unit level considerations as the primary drivers of politics.


1. This article is a condensed forerunner of several chapters in a book I am writing tentatively titled “Explaining International Politics in Asia since 1945.” It argues that unit-level variables, specifically contestations over the identity of nations and states, have been the primary driver of war, peace, cooperation, and order in Asia since 1945. As nation-state making is still at an early stage, it will continue to drive Asian international politics in the foreseeable future. System-level variables are important as well, but they are informed by unit-level considerations that often provide the rationale or cause for international action by states. They mitigate, reinforce, or complicate the effects of unit-level variables. However, they are not the primary drivers of international politics as commonly argued. I would like to thank the participants in a small roundtable to review the first draft of this paper: Evan Medeiros, Doug Paal, Vikram Nehru, Jonathan Pollack, Kathy Moon, Joseph Liow, and Admiral Dennis Blair. I would also like to thank Michael Green for discussing this as well as Michael Yahuda and David Shambaugh for written comments.

2. Asia must be defined and constructed not only on the basis of geography, but also on the basis of security interdependence, including Northeast, Southeast, South, and Central Asia. China provides the security connection among these sub-regions, and the United States is a key security player in all of them. A high degree of security interdependence prevails among these countries, as reflected in Chinese articulation of Asian security. Due to my area expertise limitations, this article omits countries in Central Asia..

3. Goldsmith, Benjamin E. 2007, “A Liberal Peace in Asia?” Journal of Peace Research 44, no. 1: 5-27.

4. Richard K. Betts, “Wealth, Power and Instability: East Asia and the United States after the Cold War,” International Security 18, no. 3 (1993-1994): 34-77; Aaron L. Friedberg, “Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for peace in a multipolar Asia,” International Security 18, no. 3 (1993-1994): 5-33; Barry Buzan and Gerald Segal, “Rethinking East Asian Security,” Survival 36, no. 2 (1994): 3-21.

5. See for example Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (Random House, 2014) and John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2001).

6. The explicit case that Asia has enjoyed relative peace and stability since about 1979 is set out in Asia Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features, ed. Muthiah Alagappa (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).

7. John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

8. In “The Long Peace in Asia: Explanation and Projection” presented at a conference in 2008, I argued that this was an outcome of unit-level factors that were exacerbated or mitigated by considerations at the international level. I presented a similar argument in Muthiah Alagappa, “Changing Asia: Prospects for war, peace, cooperation and order,” Political Science 63, no. 2 (December 2011): 155-185.

9. Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: Random House, 1979); He argued that bipolarity is more conducive to stability and peace, while Kissinger and Deutsch and Singer posit multipolarity as more conducive. There is no agreement on the relationship between system structure, war and peace; James E. Dougherty and Robert L.Pfaltzgraff, Contending Theories of International Relations (Harper and Row Publishers, 1981), 163-166.

10. Some may contend that the power structure in Asia from about the late 1960s was not bipolar. However, until the 1990s, China was not a pole in its own right. Recognizing this, it initially allied with the Soviet Union, and later aligned with the United States. To 1991, China did not make a substantial difference to polarity in Asia. Even if China did make a difference, it does not undermine the claim that war and the transition to peace in Asia occurred primarily as a consequence of change in unit-level variables and the local military balance.

11. Ashley Tellis, Stability in South Asia, RAND Briefing Paper, 1997.

12. The international environment was akin to a strategic overlay. Barry Buzan, People, State &Fear: An Agenda for International Security Studies (Boulder,CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1991), 219-221.

13. Though not colonized, the strong presence of foreign officials in the pre-1945 administrations of Nepal and Thailand has led many observers to characterize both countries as semi-colonies. Modern statehood in Thailand only began in the late nineteenth century and its present international boundaries in the south were negotiated with colonial powers only in the early twentieth century. Though Japan was an imperial power, it emerged from World War II as an occupied country with a constitution imposed by the United States. The basis for the contemporary state dates only from 1952. In the case of China, though not fully colonized, substantial territories were under foreign control. It fought several wars to rid itself of foreign, especially Japanese, control, laying the basis for the contemporary state in 1949. Colonial rule in Hong Kong and Macao continued well into the twentieth century.