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Multihegemony, sutured regionness, and the US-China-Japan triangle.

WITH 2014 MARKING THE CENTENARY OF THE OUTBREAK OF WORLD War I, academic and journalistic attention is being paid to a set of extraordinary parallels between the security landscapes of prewar Europe and twenty-first-century Northeast Asia (Allison 2014; Tirone and Donahue 2014). Among the similarities are the rise of nationalism, unresolved territorial disputes, an intricate system of alliances, and power transition. The 1914-2014 comparison has also been used by top politicians. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2014, Japan's prime minister Abe Shinzo compared China-Japan relations to those of Britain and Germany prior to World War I, when they went to war in spite of the manifold economic ties between them (Nihon keizai shimbun 2014a). Although the context of his remark was that Japan and China must do everything to avoid a similar fate, China denounced Abe's comparison. "I wish to emphasize that 2014 is not 1914, still less 1894," Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said, adding that "instead of using Germany before the First World War as an object lesson, why not use Germany after the Second World War as a role model?" (Wong 2014). Wang urged Japan to follow the path of post-World War II Germany, which made a clear break from the imperial past and played a leading role in the creation of the European Union.

Pundits joined the controversy as well. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger asked China and Japan to exercise restraint at the Munich Security Conference, saying, "Asia is more in a position of 19th-century Europe, where military conflict is not ruled out" (Tirone and Donahue 2014). Graham Allison said, "The fact that Presidents Obama and Xi understand that war would be folly for both China and the US is relevant but not dispositive" (Allison 2014).

One of the objectives of war is to eliminate the identity threat for the actor but, given the results of World War I, the very act of going to war has eliminated the identities not just of enemies but also of the region itself. Consequently, it is crucial to have a thorough look at what leads great powers to the brink of war. In particular, it is necessary to cross-check the goals and capabilities of great powers and regional constellations of power and hegemony during the two wartime periods.

My article compares pre-World War I Europe and post-2010 Northeast Asia. The year 2010 marked the emergence of China as the world's number two economic power, with a gross domestic product (GDP) that surpassed Japan's. The United States was and remains one of the main players in the regional security dynamics of Northeast Asia. I will focus on US-China-Japan triangular relations because major wars in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries were fought alternately between two of the three powers: the first Sino-Japanese (1894-1895) and second Sino-Japanese (1937-1945) Wars, World War II (United States vs. Japan), and the Korean War (United States vs. China). The Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) was the sole exception. The US-ChinaJapan triangular relationship will remain the main determinant of the security dynamics of Northeast Asia for many years to come. In a parallel to World War I, surging nationalism in China and Japan and territorial disputes over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyudao in Chinese) have been identified as the catalysts for military clashes, while Japan's military alliance with the United States and US-China hegemonic competition have been referred to as structural and institutional factors that could potentially turn bilateral conflicts into an international war (Friedberg 2005).

With balance of power (BOP) theory predicting the possibility of conflicts between great powers at times of power transition (Mearsheimer 2001; Morgenthau 1948; Waltz 1979), I argue that the possibility of a major war is relatively low in Northeast Asia, even though a limited form of military confrontation cannot be totally discounted (Kivimaki 2014; Pinker 2011). The low risk of major war goes against the predictions of BOP theory, and can be explained in terms of what I call multihegemony and sutured regionness that have been unfolding in East Asia in recent years. These two factors will, I argue, inhibit the breakout of a major international war.

My article first illustrates realist and liberal theories of international relations in parallel with the concepts of multihegemony and sutured regionness and their applicability to pre-World War I Europe and post-2010 Northeast Asia. I argue that the extant theories have limited explanatory power and that the concepts of hegemony and regionness could provide an enhanced understanding of the similarities and differences between those two periods. The following section on multihegemony illustrates how it might explain the possibilities of peace and conflict. I then make a comparative analysis from the perspective of sutured regionness, noting that the presence or absence of an intervening outside actor will be a key determinant in preventing a bilateral conflict from escalating to an international war. Thus, the penetration of the United States into the security dynamics of Northeast Asia is identified as one of the factors contributing to the amelioration of bilateral conflicts between China and Japan. All in all, multihegemony and sutured regionness have guided the regional powers to seek measures short of military means.

Multihegemony and Sutured Regionness

Realism and Liberalism

Realist thinkers argue that nation-states, like all human associations, are prone to having an inescapable desire to maximize power and dominate the international system through an incessant struggle for power (Morgenthau 1948). Over time, great powers come to rule the system by establishing an international pecking order. If there is no overarching power, multiple great powers may form a concert of power, as happened in post-Napoleonic War Europe. If one power manages to establish hegemony over its competitors, a kind of stability unfolds--a preponderance of power such as the United States enjoyed after the end of the Cold War (Gilpin 1987; Goldstein 2005). When a hegemonic power declines and a new power emerges to challenge the established order, many realist thinkers predict the potential for conflict, if not overt war (Christensen 2006; Friedberg 2005; Goldstein 2005; Mearsheimer 2001). Allison named that possibility the "Thucydides Trap," referring to the "dangers two parties face when a rising power rivals a ruling power--as Athens did in the 5th century BC and Germany did at the end of the 19th century" (Allison 2012).

While many realists are pessimistic about cooperation without the authority and leadership of a hegemonic power, liberal institutionalists argue that international regimes could work as weak substitutes for world government in facilitating decentralized cooperation among nation-states (Keohane 1984).

Given the predictions of the two theories, what path will East Asia take? In fact, neither hegemonic conflicts nor decentralized cooperation through international regimes has taken place in East Asia thus far. Despite the formation of several regional groupings, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the ASEAN Plus Three (China-South Korea-Japan), the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the China-Japan-South Korea Trilateral Summit, it will take time for East Asian regionalism to evolve into European Union-like relations.

I use the concept of hegemony to describe a region as the product of a hegemon's leadership in creating norms and institutions and winning the compliance of minor states, though ephemeral in its boundaries and membership. Sutured regionness is premised on the idea of a region's original lack or inexistence, just as psychoanalysts define suture as "a structure of lack" (Heath 1977/1978, 55). Thus, states and nations should be stitched up to form a region, but they are still vulnerable to a breakup. By looking at Northeast Asia from these twin perspectives, I offer an explanation of why the region is relatively peaceful in spite of BOP predictions of conflicts and the lack of international regimes. What is unfolding in Northeast Asia is neither a hegemonic conflict nor a form of bandwagoning with China, in line with David Kang's work (Kang 2003). Rather, what we are witnessing is a dynamic interaction of multihegemony and sutured regionness.


While hegemony refers to a state of relative superiority in the manner of the Pax Britannia and Pax Americana (Gilpin 1981), I draw on the discourse analysis of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2001), who regard hegemony as a provisional, partial, and contingent form of supremacy. But I take their discussion a step further by developing the idea of multiple hegemonies, since supremacy can exist in multiple forms on different planes, primarily military or economic. The governments of nation-states, once the center of both power and politics, are increasingly losing their authority because power no longer recognizes national boundaries and the process of deterritorialization has gained speed in the wake of globalization (Bauman 1998).

In this way, multihegemony is a middle ground approach between the Westphalian model of nation-states, which had been the center of both power and politics, and Hardt and Negri's (2000) decentralized and deterritorialized universal order. The reason why multihegemony could materialize at the turn of the twenty-first century is that a military hegemon finds it difficult to secure economic gains through military power (Keohane 1984). In other words, economic hegemony is not easily replaceable by military hegemony because of the growing agency power and autonomy of trading states and nonstate actors in this globalized world (Rosecrance 1986; Rosenau 1999). Back in the seventeenth century, the Dutch golden age of global economic hegemony was destroyed by military powers such as France and Britain (Waller-stein 1980). But today we have "the reciprocal and dynamic interaction in international relations of the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of power" (Gilpin 1975, 43). Furthermore, economic hegemonies may be shared among nation-states because the globalized practice of outsourcing technologies and commodities makes states dependent on each other.

The types and characteristics of each hegemony depend largely on the unit level--Kenneth Waltz's second image (1954). Two excellent examples are Lenin's theory of imperialism in which capitalist states go to war out of the necessity of opening up new markets, and the democratic peace theory in which democracies are less prone to go to war against one another, but have conflictual relations with nondemocracies. Although Waltz used the examples to highlight the possibilities of war between imperialist states or between democracies and nondemocracies, I argue that the differences in the domestic makeup of the state could constitute a basis for dynamic interactions short of war, as long as there is a certain amount of tolerance and autonomy on different levels among multiple hegemons.

Therefore, multihegemony is formulated here as a concept describing the configurations of power relations befitting a globalized world in which multiple hegemonies could coexist on different planes, as illustrated in Figure 1. Multihegemony is different from the realist notion of polarity, which is based on the distribution of power between and among nation-states having almost uniform characteristics, like billiard balls, in terms of their possession and pursuit of military and economic power (Vasquez 1998). As Robert Jervis has written, "unipolarity implies the existence of many juridically equal nation-states" (2009, 190-191). In contrast, multihegemony entails multiple spheres of influence dominated respectively by each hegemon. Takashi Inoguchi and John Ikenberry highlight the complexity of today's US-China-Japan relations in Northeast Asia, caused by the "crosscutting forces of economics and security" (2013, 2): the United States is the leading security provider, while Japan and China, respectively, possess high technologies and manufacturing facilities. They describe the emergence of "two hierarchies," with the triangular relationship sitting at the center of the regional order (Inoguchi and Ikenberry 2013, 2).

In retrospect, Germany's imperial expansion had "met with firm resistance from the established club" of the pre-World War I powers--Britain, France, and Russia--since the competition for the possession of overseas colonies appeared to be a zero-sum game (Clark 2012, 142). In the twenty-first century, China's rise has caused an acute security dilemma among its rivals, but there has been no urgency about military action to curb its economic rise. Instead, the United States has engaged with China economically, harvested profits through its investments and economic interdependence, and attempted to rhetorically accommodate its rise through the narratives of "a responsible stakeholder" or "G2" (Bergsten 2005; Brzezinski 2009; Zoellick 2005). At the same time, the United States has tried to contain China strategically through initiatives such as the "pivot to Asia" and the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) on trade, which excludes China. If the pre-World War I period is characterized by an acute form of hegemonic competition among nation-states featuring unit-level commonalities, post-2010 Northeast Asia is a case of multihegemonic harmony displaying unit-level variations (Shin 2013).

Keohane (1984) argues that US hegemony, though in decline, cannot be readily replaced by other forms of hegemony. In reality, however, we can witness US military hegemony coexisting with Chinese global hegemony in industrial manufacturing and, though on a lesser scale, Japan's regional hegemony in the production of high-tech machine goods and their parts and components. As James Rosenau said, hegemonic spheres are "not necessarily consistent with the division of territorial space and are subject to considerable flux" (1999, 295). Furthermore, the leadership role in each type of hegemony has been played by different actors: the United States has been at the center of military hegemony, while the loci of Chinese and Japanese hegemonies take the form of private and state-run businesses and highly trained scientists and engineers. The statecraft of each state has been entirely geared to maintaining its respective hegemony, as in the case of Japan, which, despite the March 2011 tsunami-related nuclear accident in Fukushima, signed a series of agreements to facilitate the export of nuclear power plant technologies to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in 2013 ( 2013; Stainburn 2013). The Chinese government has engaged in a dynamic interaction with economic stakeholders, introducing sweeping liberalization while keeping control only in certain sectors such as those related to national security and technological development (Hsueh 2011).

Sutured Regionness

The notion of sutured regionness is associated with the lack of a priori mechanisms that bring together a group of geographically adjacent states. Nevertheless, a region is formed as a coherent entity through the stitching work of various discourses, treaties, and institutions (Heath 1977/1978). Bjorn Hettne and Fredrik Soderbaum (2000) outline five levels of regionness: regional space, regional complex, regional society, regional community, and region-state. Starting with a "proto-region" or a "pre-regional zone," their discussion goes all the way up to the region-state, which refers to the European Union (Hettne and Soderbaum 2000).

As an agent of reinforcing regionness, the concept of "suture" is used to illustrate the discursive and institutional formation of a region. Suture refers to "the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse" (Miller 1977/1978), which we may take to mean that a region is not just a patchwork of different identities but also a coherent entity created at the end of the suturing function. For instance, the US-China-Japan triangle has been stitched up by the US-Japan alliance and the strategic interactions between the United States and China on multiple levels, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogue organized annually since 2009. The missing link is between China and Japan as the two countries failed to organize a summit meeting for more than two years because of the standoff over ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands since Prime Minister Abe took office in December 2012. Nevertheless, the United States has worked as a suture by pressing the two states to avoid two extreme paths: a complete rupture in the form of a war and a complete seal in the form of the creation of a closed regional community.

How can we harmonize the two concepts of hegemony and suture? I treat hegemonic designs and practices, both military and economic, as intended to suture a group of states into a region (Laclau and Mouffe 2001). In other words, the original lack, when it comes to the structure of a region, is what hegemonic practices aim to fill in. Nevertheless, the existence of a totally sutured region or the closure of the region is impossible, since hegemonic practices could remain partial and provisional, as stated at the outset.

Applying Multihegemony

This section applies the concepts of hegemony and multihegemony in analyzing the similarities and differences of pre-World War I Europe and post-2010 East Asia.

Pre-World War I Europe

Pre-World War I Europe was a bipolar system organized around two sets of alliances: the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) (Clark 2012). Against the predictions of the neorealists that bipolar systems are less likely to experience war than multipolar ones (Waltz 1979), the assassination by Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo, led to war between the great powers.

Nevertheless, there is no shared understanding that Germany went to war in 1914 with a grand design to dominate continental Europe (Fischer 1967), or that the major European powers sleepwalked into war (Clark 2012). Nevertheless, some commonalities in these two extremely different interpretations of the causes of World War I are the presence of nationalism on the popular level and of militarism and hegemonic ambitions shared by elites, not just in Germany, but also in Britain, France, and Russia (Clark 2012). The conservative supporters of war were convinced that, despite Germany's growing industrial power and military power, its place in Europe would be severely restricted by the three other hegemonic powers and, therefore, that a preventive war by Germany against the Triple Entente was inevitable for it to achieve the status of world power by force of arms (Fischer 1967). Those in the opposing camp shared the opinion that the newly emergent Germany had little maneuvering room in handling international affairs, especially on the issue of bargaining with the established European powers over overseas colonies (Clark 2012).

World War I was thus a hegemonic war because the warring parties had been vying for both military and economic supremacy over their competitors. In other words, the great powers were structurally incapable of sharing military and economic hegemonies partly because the nation-states ruled by kings (Britain and Italy), the tsar (Russia), the Kaiser (Germany), and the emperor (Austria-Hungary) possessed unit-level commonalities and a desire for imperialist hegemony. Virtually no possibility existed of multihegemony's unfolding in pre-World War I Europe (Day and Gaido 2012).

Post-2010 East Asia

In contrast to pre-World War I Europe, post-2010 Northeast Asia has witnessed the unfolding of multihegemony. Experts share the notion that the United States will retain its military hegemony for the coming decades, while China will surpass the United States in economic power in a decade. While the United States is a power outside the region, Japan will retain its status as a regional power and will enjoy unrivaled social stability and technological prowess for the coming decade. I will illustrate the three types of hegemonies in Northeast Asia--US military hegemony, China's manufacturing hegemony, and Japan's high-tech industrial hegemony--that have coexisted in a dynamic interaction. The unfolding of multihegemony has laid out a structural basis for the prevention of a hegemonic war of the kind predicted by the BOP model.

US Hegemonic Space

US military spending declined by 5.6 percent in real terms in 2012, in part due to the 2011 bipartisan debt deal and the subsequent process for automatic budget reductions, known as sequestration (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2013). Nevertheless, the United States officially spent $682 billion on the military in 2012, a sum larger than the combined military spending ($652 billion) of the next ten countries, including China, Russia, Britain, and Japan. China, in second place, increased its military spending by 7.8 percent to $166 billion, while Russia's military spending rose 16 percent in 2012 alone to $90 billion. The United States aimed to maintain its military supremacy in East Asia when it declared a "pivot to Asia" or "rebalancing." According to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, the United States will rearrange its global naval fleets so that 60 percent of its battleships, including six aircraft carriers, will be assigned to the Asia Pacific region, up from about 50 percent in 2012 (Ratner 2013). Furthermore, the United States will seek to strengthen the US-Japan-South Korea triangular alliance as a counterweight to China by endeavoring to mend ties between its estranged alliance partners in a grand design to solidify its military hegemony (Japan Times 2014).

Chinese Hegemonic Space

Since President Xi put forward the narrative of Zhongguo meng (China Dream) at the Eighteenth National People's Congress (NPC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012, China's great rejuvenation in all walks of life has become a national goal (China Daily 2013). Nevertheless, the future role of China looks increasingly contingent on the interaction of foreign policy ideas and events (Legro 2007). Despite its rising labor costs and land prices, China is confident about its position as the factory of the world at least for the coming decade, inundating the global market with products "made in China" (People's Daily 2013). So far, almost every indicator shows that China has been on the road to economic greatness despite its economic slowdown in 2015. In 2014, China surpassed the United States as the world's biggest economy in purchasing-power terms (Fox News 2014).

In spite of concerns that it will rise as a military power, China's military buildup has been modest thus far. China's defense budget, according to a draft budget report submitted to the NPC, will increase by 12.2 percent to 808.2 billion yuan (about $132 billion) in 2014, the highest rate of growth since 2011 (Xinhuanet 2014b). Chen Zhou, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences and a deputy to the NPC, argues that "compared with major powers in the world, China's spending in national defense is considerably lower either in terms of its share in GDP or in per capita terms" (Xinhuanet 2014b). Yin Zhuo, director of the Expert Consultation Committee of the PLA (People's Liberation Army) Navy, notes that the share of military spending in China's GDP stood at less than 1.5 percent in 2013, well below the world average of 3 percent, although the rise in the defense budget in the past three years surpassed the rates of GDP growth (Xinhuanet 2014b).

China's rising economic supremacy has consolidated a shift in the international and regional pecking order in terms of trade. Its total trade volume hit a record high of $4.16 trillion in 2013, overtaking the United States, at $3.91 trillion, to become the world's largest trading nation (China Daily 2014). "This is a landmark milestone for our nation's foreign trade development," said Zheng Yuesheng, a spokesman for China's General Administration of Customs (Guardian 2014). China had already become the world's largest exporter of goods in 2009 and the largest manufacturing country, overtaking the United States in 2010.

China's hegemony in the global and regional markets in terms of low-priced commodities means that its growth has been uneven across key sectors. David Shambaugh describes China as a "partial power," given that its influence, as a barometer of its power, is felt only in "global trade patterns, global energy and commodity markets, the global tourism industry, global sales of luxury goods, global real estate purchases, and cyber hacking" (2013, 8).

Japanese Hegemonic Space

Japan's ranking as the number-two world economic power was overtaken by China in 2010, but Japan's self-pride has not subsided substantially. In his speech delivered on the occasion of National Foundation Day on February 10, 2014, Prime Minister Abe said, "we have built up today's nation of peace and abundance through the untiring efforts of each and every Japanese individual and fostered a national character that places universal freedom, democracy, and human rights in very high regard" (Abe 2014). Japan has been one of the highest achievers in terms of technological innovation, and its national identity as a "techno-superpower" was a source of national pride even before it became the world's number-two economic power in 1968 (Moore 2013).

In fact, exports of high-technology products have been the engine of Japan's economic growth since the 1960s. In 2013, Japan's main exports were transport equipment (23 percent of total exports), machinery (19 percent), electrical machinery (17 percent), manufactured goods (13 percent), and chemicals (11 percent), while its main export partners were China (18 percent of total exports), United States (18 percent), Western Europe (10 percent), South Korea (8 percent), Taiwan (6 percent), Thailand (5 percent), and Hong Kong (5 percent) (Trading Economics 2014).

In fact, Japan suffered from a record deficit of 11.47 trillion yen (about $112 billion) in 2013 because of rising costs of imports of foreign oil and gas (Nihon keizai shimbun 2014b). However, Japan secured a surplus of $18 billion in 2013 in the trade of machine parts and components by exporting a total of $36 billion and importing $18 billion (Korea International Trade Association 2014). As evidence of its level of industrial technology and production bases, Japan has enjoyed a hegemonic status mainly in the production and export of sophisticated machinery and components. In 2013, Japan's exports of automobiles to China drastically declined after anti-Japanese demonstrations over the Senkakus, while China's share of total Japanese exports also dropped from the top for the first time in five years to 18.1 percent, ranked second following the United States (18.5 percent) (JETRO 2014). However, electronic devices and machinery dominated Japan's exports to China, as seen in Table 1.

While South Korea assumed for the first time the status of top exporter to China in 2013, with an import market share of 9.24 percent, mainly because of an increase in the demand for electric and electronic goods, Japan's share declined from 9.78 percent to 8.19 percent (Yonhap News Agency 2014). Nevertheless, many of South Korea's manufactured goods have been dependent on Japanese parts and components, causing a huge deficit in the trade of parts and components with Japan amounting to $22.2 billion (Sisa Journal 2013). Regardless of how many smart phones South Korea manufactures and exports to China, Japan is at the top of the production chain as the actual beneficiary in the three-way trade, as demonstrated by Japan's hegemonic status in the production of batteries for portable devices (Battery University 2015). Besides batteries, Japan enjoys preponderance in the manufacturing of semiconductors, chemical products, and automobiles, a position that will not be overtaken by its competitors in the foreseeable future (Sisa Journal 2013).

Sutured Regionness

A group of states is sutured into a region through discourse, mechanisms, and institutions, such as policymakers' statements, treaties, and alliances. Nevertheless, suturing could take place unevenly. In pre-World War I Europe, the uneven suturing created a deep crevasse between the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. Even though a region may be divided into two groups of antagonistic states, a foreign power's penetration can change regional dynamics in a substantial manner, as long as it can play the suturing role. I will now focus on the question of the regional divide and the suturing role of an outside power. Unlike pre-World War I Europe, Northeast Asia has experienced the penetration of the United States as a permanent regional fixture. This actor-oriented analysis of regionness offers more explanatory power than a geography-oriented one in understanding the dynamics of alliances and their consequences for war and peace.

The Absence of Suturing in Pre-World War I Europe

The polarization of Europe into two alliance systems was not a direct cause of the war, but still "structured the environment in which the crucial decisions were made" (Clark 2012, 123). With the power and influence of Britain in relative decline, no state was capable of suturing the bifurcation of the two alliance systems, making the entire European state system vulnerable to the assassination in Sarajevo. The cross-continental divide was aggravated in 1908 when Austria-Hungary officially annexed the former Ottoman territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which it had occupied since 1878. The decision caused a chain reaction: it angered the Kingdom of Serbia; its patron, Russia, decided not to collaborate with Austria-Hungary on resolving Balkan issues; and finally an initially noncommittal Germany came to support Austria enthusiastically (Clark 2012).

Initially, Germany expected Britain to play a suturing role by mediating a peace treaty after it had defeated France. But Britain "upset the German statesmen's hope of a limited war by declaring war on Germany over the invasion of Belgium" (Fischer 1967, 280). In fact, World War I was the outgrowth of Anglo-German rivalry that dated from the late nineteenth century when a militaristic Germany emerged as a rival to an equally militaristic Britain. The November 1910 edition of Round Table, a nonpartisan British journal, noted, "The central fact in the international situation to-day is the antagonism between England and Germany" (Schmitt 1918, 1). Nevertheless, in the years before the start of the war, Anglo-German relations had considerably improved to the extent that their rapprochement may have created misperceptions about each country's real intentions (Lynn-Jones 1986). However, Britain, a central player in the maintenance of European equilibrium for two hundred years, could not tolerate a rising power demanding "recognition as an equal," especially its violation of the neutrality of Belgium, a strategic location in Europe (Schmitt 1918, 10).

In spite of the war's outbreak, the US government, led by President Woodrow Wilson, maintained neutrality "in thought and deed" (The Independent 1914). In September 1914, Wilson offered to mediate a general peace treaty for the first time and sent his confidant, Colonel Edward M. House, to the European capitals. But the differences between Britain and Germany over the basis for restoring the status quo antebellum were too wide to be sutured by a non-European power. The Entente powers called for the evacuation and compensation of Belgium by Germany, which was a complete nonstarter (Fischer 1967). Then, Germany's declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, followed by the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, and the death of 118 Americans on board, drove US public opinion into threatening Germany with the suspension of diplomatic relations and even with war (Fischer 1967).

Suturing in Post-2010 East Asia

The Senkakus have been identified as one of the most dangerous flash points in Northeast Asia. On September 7, 2010, a Chinese trawler collided with a Japan coast guard patrol boat near the islets, leading to the arrest of the Chinese crew members. The incident drove China-Japan relations to their lowest point since the departure of Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, whom China had criticized for his frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine dedicated to Japan's war dead, including fourteen Class-A war criminals (Fackler and Johnson 2010). Following another controversy over China's retaliatory restrictions on the exports of rare earth minerals used extensively for the production of electronic products, Japan released the skipper of the trawler after a seventeen-day detention. The incident revealed China's muscle flexing and Japan's diplomatic humiliation.

Nevertheless, Japan used the incident as an opportunity to secure a US commitment to the defense of the Senkakus under Article 5 of their bilateral security treaty, and to organize a large-scale joint military exercise with the United States off Okinawa on December 3-10, 2010. The joint exercise, which came after North Korea's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea, involved 34,100 Japanese personnel, forty vessels, and 250 aircraft from Japan's Ground, Maritime, and Air Self Defense Forces and 10,400 troops, twenty ships, and 150 aircraft from the United States (Talmadge 2011).

In 2012, the Japanese government nationalized the islets in an effort to prevent Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro from purchasing them and using them as a springboard for Japan's nationalistic propaganda (Dickie and Hille 2012). Nevertheless, China took the government's action as further evidence of Japan's effort to establish jurisdiction over the islets. China dispatched its aircraft and vessels on a routine basis into the air and maritime spaces adjacent to the islets, and Japan responded with emergency steps to control the infiltrations. In the course of the cat-and-mouse game, the islets have emerged as a potential flash point that could lead to a military confrontation between the two.

The territorial disputes have been a breeding ground for nationalism in both China and Japan. The Abe administration's brand of nationalism entailed liberating the nation from the shackles of the US-imposed "peace constitution" and rectifying the practice and identity of a Japan that is forever being pushed by its Asian neighbors to apologize for its World War II-era expansionism. Immediately after the Abe administration sought to review the Kono Declaration admitting the imperial military's involvement in the mobilization of "comfort women"--wartime sex slaves--and Abe himself visited the Yasukuni Shrine, China suspended high-level exchanges with Japan, including summit talks.

China's nationalism has been exceptionally strong in a time of economic ascendency. Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime prime minister of Singapore who served as a mentor to many Chinese leaders, including Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, said, "It is China's intention to become the greatest power in the world--and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West" (Allison and Blackwill 2012, 3). China's new-born pride is often articulated as "the great revival of the Chinese nation," as President Xi put it in a speech in November 2012 at the national museum in Tiananmen Square. Notable was the occasion--an exhibition, entitled "Road to Revival," that centered on China's suffering at the hands of colonial powers and the CCP's role in turning the nation toward greatness (The Economist 2013).

In post-2010 East Asia, however, the United States has functioned as a suture, controlling the width and depth of the schism between China and Japan, as illustrated in Figure 2. On the one hand, the US alliance with Japan aims not just to defend Japan from external threats but also to constrain Japan's potential reversion to aggressiveness by instituting various intra-allied controls (Gelpi 1999). On the other hand is the US strategic partnership with China, contributing to the socialization of the state in regional and international society. This two-way US suturing, in fact, has been one of the main reasons Northeast Asia is a relatively coherent region. To end the Korean War, the United States sutured North and South Korea by exercising leadership in signing the Armistice Agreement. The relationship between Japan and South Korea may also be attributed to US stitchwork because Washington pressed these two antagonistic states to sign the treaty for diplomatic normalization in 1965 in order to sustain a global anticommunist alliance system.

The United States has traditionally taken a neutral position with regard to the competing claims of Japan, China, and Taiwan over the Senkakus despite their return to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Treaty of 1971 (Blanchard 2000; Manyin 2013). In a letter dated October 20, 1971, Acting Assistant Legal Adviser Robert Starr stated, "The United States has made no claim to the Senkaku Islands and considers that any conflicting claims to the islands are a matter for resolution by the parties concerned" (Starr 1971). Nevertheless, the United States has made it clear that the US-Japan Security Treaty would be applied to the islands in the event of a contingency. During the 2010 China-Japan confrontations over the islets, for instance, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted, "first, with respect to the Senkaku Islands, the United States has never taken a position on sovereignty, but we have made it very clear that the islands are part of our mutual treaty obligations, and the obligation to defend Japan" (Clinton 2010). In 2012, when Japan nationalized the Senkakus, igniting anti-Japanese demonstrations and strikes at Japanese-owned factories in China, Secretary of Defense Panetta urged "calm and restraint," warning that China-Japan confrontations could develop into a regional conflict that could draw in the United States (McLannahan and Dyer 2012).


Zygmunt Bauman refers to a divorce between power and politics as the greatest source of fear in this globalized world, given that politics, the realm of institutionalized decisionmaking, has been estranged from the center of power in which resources are created, amassed, and distributed (Bauman 1998). However, Bauman celebrates the divorce as one of the underlying reasons for stability in Northeast Asia, where US military hegemony dynamically coexists with Chinese and Japanese economic hegemonies and performs a suturing function in regional disputes. In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2014, Fu Ying, chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's NPC, argued that the situation in East Asia now differs from that of Europe in 1914, when countries fought for expansion in "the year of imperialism" (Xinhuanet 2014a). Unlike 1914, Fu said, globalization provides opportunities for China and other countries to pursue development and prosperity in a peaceful way rather than by resorting to war.

My article employs two concepts--multihegemony and sutured regionness--to compare pre-World War I Europe and post-2010 Northeast Asia. I have highlighted the lack of multihegemony and sutured regionness as the main reasons World War I could not be prevented, but I have argued that the presence of those factors has buttressed Northeast Asia's relative stability in spite of the rise of nationalism in both China and Japan and territorial disputes over the Senkakus. Nationalism, especially hypernationalism and secessionist struggles, was the main cause of World Wars I and II. After the onset of the Cold War, nationalism became relatively tame in Western Europe, while regionalism became a trend. However, Northeast Asia has witnessed a range of nationalism-related disputes over territorial jurisdiction and the interpretation of history.

Yet the new realities unfolding in this era of globalization have transformed the war triangle in Northeast Asia into a zone of multihegemony. The current state of multihegemony is not entirely peaceful, and in fact encompasses the characteristics of the "Hot Peace," an oxymoron referring to a state of dynamic interactions short of war (Wang 2001). The three powers feature different second-images: the United States possesses both militarist and liberal images, China is known for authoritarian and capitalist images, and Japan is a technologically advanced and socially stable state. As long as they interact dynamically while recognizing one another's hegemonic spheres, and as long as the United States continues to play the suturing role, post-Cold War stability in Northeast Asia can be extended into the foreseeable future.


Key-young Son is Humanities Korea (HK) professor at the Asiatic Research Institute, Korea University. His areas of research include East Asian politics and constructivist theories. The author thanks two anonymous referees for constructive comments. He can be reached at

This work was supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea Grant funded by the Korean Government (NRF-362-2008-1-A00001).


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Table 1 Japan's Top Five Exports to China

                               Sum (US$)        From     Share (%)
                                              2012 (%)

Electronic devices          28,764,590,000     -16.2       22.2
General machinery           25,333,940,000     -15.6       19.5
Chemical products           21,178,820,000      5.2        16.3
Iron and steel              17,641,620,000     -12.0       13.6
Transportation machines     12,758,350,000      -7.8        9.8
Total exports               129,883,280,000    -10.2

Source: JETRO 2014.
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Date:Jan 1, 2016
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