Since the end of the Cold War, Europe has constantly had to manage violent conflicts on its doorstep, whereas most of Asia has been free of major wars. The reason is relatively simple: Asia has benefited from a culture of pragmatism that treats political division as an impetus for closer dialogue.
Here is a new truism for this age of global tension: wars are the result of geopolitical incompetence, whereas peace reflects strategic skill.
When the Cold War ended three decades ago, the general expectation was that Europe would remain at peace, while Asia would descend into war. In 1993, the American political scientist Aaron L. Friedberg wrote that Asia seemed far more likely than Europe to be the “cockpit of great-power conflict.” In the long run, he predicted, “Europe’s past could be Asia’s future.”
Needless to say, it did not turn out that way. From the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s to Russia’s war in Ukraine today, Europe has been dealing with violent conflict for more than 30 years, even though there has been no chance of war between European Union members. By contrast, even though Asian countries do not enjoy the kind of relations that exist among EU states, there have been no major wars in the region during this period. This is a remarkable achievement, especially considering that the three biggest wars of the Cold War – the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Sino-Vietnamese War – were fought there.
What explains this relative peace in Asia? The simple answer is that Asia benefits from a culture of pragmatism, as demonstrated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which emerged as a successful regional organization at the end of the Cold War (as Jeffery Sng and I document in our book The ASEAN Miracle). While ASEAN welcomed Vietnam, an erstwhile adversary for many of its members, Europe consistently excluded its erstwhile adversary, Russia, from significant binding regional arrangements. Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal of “a common house for Europe” was effectively rebuffed.
ASEAN has been successful precisely because it has aimed to be as inclusive as possible. When it launched the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1994, one of the main goals was to bring together traditional adversaries such as India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and China and Japan. True, when Chinese President Jiang Zemin traveled to Japan in November 1998, the visit went badly, owing to Japan’s failure to offer a full apology for abuses committed during World War II. Sino-Japanese relations duly soured. Yet a subsequent ASEAN summit in Hanoi provided Chinese and Japanese leaders a face-saving venue to meet and start repairing relations.
Now consider NATO’s enlargement. While US and European leaders swear they never promised Russia that the alliance would not continue to grow, Russian leaders claim otherwise. Future historians may resolve this debate, but we can still consider what might have been. In the late 1990s, Western foreign-policy mandarins like George F. Kennan warned that NATO’s enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe was a “fateful error” that “may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations, and to impel Russian foreign policy in directions decidedly not to our liking.”
Many Asians doubt that Europeans truly believed that NATO could keep growing with no consequences. Yes, like most Ukrainians (and Swedes and Finns) today, the people of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Montenegro, and others wanted to join NATO. The fact that NATO agreed to make them members certainly does not justify Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, which must be condemned in no uncertain terms. But the assumption that nothing would happen as a result of NATO’s enlargement is either politically naive or disingenuous.
Some Westerners might criticize ASEAN for its indecisiveness; yet its approach has worked well. Today, East Asia is focused on the US-China geopolitical contest, which has immense potential to divide the region. Yet, thanks to a prescient ASEAN initiative introduced in 2011 to prevent major conflicts in the region, most East Asian countries are now bound together by the world’s largest free-trade agreement. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership includes all ten ASEAN member states as well as Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. Among the five additional members, four are staunch US allies. Yet they all joined the RCEP enthusiastically because they believed it would help stabilize the region.
The benefits of ASEAN’s inclusive approach speak for themselves. In 2000, Japan’s economy was eight times larger than ASEAN’s; now it is 1.5 times larger, because the region has grown robustly through closer trade and interdependence. Between 2000 and 2022, ASEAN-China trade grew from $40 billion to almost $1 trillion. Remarkably, the $3 trillion ASEAN economy added more to global economic growth between 2000 and 2020 than did the EU with its $15 trillion economy.
To be sure, there are many geopolitical clouds hanging over Asia. As I document in Has China Won?, the US-China contest will continue to gain momentum in the coming decade. China’s relations with Japan and India remain fraught. New wars are certainly possible. But major violent conflict in Asia remains unlikely, because most governments recognize that the “Asian century” is the best opportunity that they will get to expand their economies and improve living standards for their people.
Moreover, the region’s well-established multilateral processes have created norms, mechanisms, cultures, and habits that militate against conflict. There are over a thousand official meetings involving ASEAN members per year, and the bloc’s dialogue partners, which include all the other major Asian countries, attend many of them.
This points to a lesson that Europe could learn from ASEAN. European regional integration has always been based on the cardinal principle that, “To join us, you must be like us.” But ASEAN has inverted this principle, recognizing that, “Precisely because we are different, we must talk often and learn to work together.” ASEAN is by far the world’s most diverse region in terms of ethnicity, religion, culture, or political and economic systems.
Against this backdrop, it is difficult to overstate ASEAN’s success in fostering regional cooperation. The bloc has clearly devised the right platform to bring together countries that otherwise would cling to old animosities. In the coming years, we can continue to assess the effectiveness of ASEAN’s pragmatism by applying a simple litmus test: If any major wars break out in the region, we will know it has failed.
But if they do not, we will have even more evidence supporting the wisdom of ASEAN’s more inclusive approach. We will also have a valuable model for managing international affairs in the emerging multipolar world. Even if the US and China drift further apart, ASEAN will strive to maintain good relations with both. In the process, it may well provide the small buffer that is needed to contain the superpower rivalry’s most perilous spillovers.
Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, is the co-author of The ASEAN Miracle: A Catalyst for Peace (National University of Singapore Press, 2017) and the author of Has China Won? (PublicAffairs, 2020).