Yoon Young-kwan: Asia Feels Like Pre-War Europe

Yoon Young-kwan, South Korea’s foreign minister in 2003-4, is professor of international relations at Seoul National University.

Whether east Asia’s politicians and pundits like it or not, the region’s current international relations are more akin to 19th-century European balance-of-power politics than to the stable Europe of today.

Witness east Asia’s rising nationalism, territorial disputes and lack of effective institutional mechanisms for security co-operation. While economic interdependence among China, Japan, South Korea and the members of the Association of South-east Asian Nations continues to deepen, their diplomatic relations are as burdened by rivalry and mistrust as relations among European countries were in the decades prior to the First World War.

A common characteristic is a power shift. Back then, Great Britain’s relative power was in decline, while Germany’s had been rising since unification in 1871. Similarly, at least in terms of economic capability, the United States and Japan seem to have begun a process of decline relative to China. Major power shifts define eras in which key political leaders are likely to make serious foreign-policy mistakes. Poor management of international relations at such critical junctures has often led to major wars...

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