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Building Peace the East Asian Way - Panel talk on the GPW session

On the last day of Geneva Peace Week, the CEAS Initiative hosted an event featuring two experts who helped shed light on an underexplored but increasingly relevant issue. Kazushige Kobayashi and Xinyu Yuan of the Graduate Institute’s Centre of Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding brought a Japanese and Chinese perspective respectively to the question of how conflict-stricken societies should be rebuilt. In doing so, they also offered a glimpse into the East Asian approach to governance.

“It’s the economy, stupid”

It must be emphasized that the ideas about peacebuilding put across by our speakers were not radically unique. Confucianism, guanxi, and other uniquely East Asian cultural elements were not the themes that dominated our discussion. As Kobayashi was keen to stress, East Asian ideas about how to bring about peace have necessarily been informed by the region’s interaction with the rest of the world, particularly the West. While East Asia may have its own perspective, one informed by its own experiences, it is not a perspective that was developed in total isolation.

It should therefore come as no surprise that one of the central tenets of East Asian peacebuilding is one that many non-Asians are already familiar with, namely the need to prioritise economic issues. From World Bank economists to strategists for the Bill Clinton campaign, this notion has already had many vocal proponents. Our speakers made it clear that, for Chinese and Japanese peacebuilders alike, the answer to the peacebuilding conundrum is to tackle conflict with a toolkit that is almost exclusively economic in nature. Infrastructure construction, poverty alleviation and the allocation of resources are the fundamentals. For China in particular, as Yuan made clear, the right to survival and development are the only human rights worth dwelling on. Get the economy right, and the rest will follow, or so the logic goes.

Traditional peacebuilding has not completely sidelined the economic dimension. But, as some scholars have argued, it has certainly under emphasised it. Less attention tends to be paid to the economic provisions in peace agreements, and prominent peacebuilding actors such as the United Nations tend to define their role in terms of politics and security. The economy is left to that other set of actors responsible for the separate fields of development and finance. Famously, this fragmented approach has been likened to two doctors divided by a curtain, operating on different sides of the same patient.

The East Asian perspective therefore does have something to offer. Bringing economics to the fore and reconciling this unhelpful division of labour is a position within peacebuilding scholarship that has gained increasing momentum. It is a position that will find welcome proponents in East Asian capitals.

A liberal peace by illiberal means?

Niccolò Machiavelli is not the most obvious source of inspiration for East Asian peacebuilding. One of history’s most misunderstood thinkers, he is typically presented as a harsh authoritarian despite having been a committed republican who despised arbitrary rule by princes. There was however, one special case when Machiavelli did argue that the rule of a single strong leader was needed over a representative government of the people – during the construction of a new republic.

Something of Machiavelli’s logic was present in Kobayashi’s explanation of the Japanese position on the liberal peace. Japan’s perspective, we were told, was shaped by the formative experience of the country’s post-1945 occupation by American forces. General MacArthur, a man who influenced the post-war trajectories of Korea and China as well as Japan, ruled during this interim period with an iron fist. Civil liberties were heavily circumscribed, and the local population had no say in the constitution of their own country. In other words, the Americans broke every guideline on inclusion in the modern peacebuilder’s handbook.

Nonetheless, Kobayashi maintained, the approach worked. The Americans rammed a war-torn, proudly nationalistic society into a Made in America mould, and out of it came a stable liberal democracy. It is for this reason that Japan has favoured the pursuit of liberal goals by illiberal means. A centralised authority, the logic dictates, is more effective and also more accountable, preventing the diffusion of responsibility among multiple sources of authority. A liberal society can come later, the initial phase of reconstruction must necessarily have its priorities elsewhere. Machiavelli would have approved.

Needless to say, while Japanese peacebuilders may at least agree on liberal values as a desirable end goal, China’s view on the matter differs. Nonetheless, in practice this may be of little consequence. Despite China’s stated objections to the liberal peace, it has participated in UN missions aimed at establishing free-and-fair elections and promoting human rights. Moreover, the shared Chinese and Japanese preference for a focus on a centralised state in peacebuilding means that their approaches end up looking outwardly similar, regardless of how much they differ internally on the desirability of liberal values.

Making sense of the East Asian perspective

Ever since the end of the Cold War sparked optimism about the possibilities for international peacemaking, liberal peacebuilding has dominated its field. As such, it is a rich source of critiqueable material. Multiple liberal peacebuilding missions have been carried out, completed, and subsequently dissected. By contrast, East Asian peacebuilding has an ephemeral quality. Normally framed in terms of investment or development assistance rather than peacebuilding, and rarely representing anything substantial enough to define the post-conflict trajectory of a country, there is no clear case study of peacebuilding that can be used to exemplify an East Asian model.

However, as was alluded to earlier, the logic of peacebuilding and the logic of governance mirror each other closely, and instances of the latter in action are much easier to identify and assess. Beijing’s implementation of illiberal developmentalism has had questionable results at best in the restless regions of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Similarly, the legacy of developmental authoritarianism in South Korea under Park Chung-hee remains disputed. Thus the debate around East Asian approaches to governance and therefore peacebuilding are likely to continue, given how contested this logic is even within East Asia itself. Can narrowly focusing on the economic domain address deep political and identity-based grievances? Is peace possible without an inclusive process? Is the extension of state authority the best way to resolve conflict? Is it right to sacrifice human rights on the altar of development?

Clearly, the East Asian approach is not a panacea for peacebuilding dilemmas. It should be questioned at length and its assumptions constructively challenged. But luckily, we need not worry about this approach becoming the sole determinant of future peacebuilding efforts. Unlike the liberal peacebuilding agenda, this new approach is entering a well-developed discipline and not a policymaking vacuum. Instead, this approach will contribute to an emerging diversity of peacebuilding tools. As the past failures of liberal peacebuilding have shown, relying on a single universal orthodoxy to dictate peacebuilding efforts is not desirable, and this diversity is a development that should be warmly, but also cautiously, embraced.


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