East Asia’s Enduring Rivalries: Ripe for Abatement?

Date01 August 2015
Published date01 August 2015
Subject MatterArticles
AIA 2.2.indb Article
East Asia’s Enduring
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Rivalries: Ripe for
2(2) 133–153
2015 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797015586118
Steve Chan1
Richard W. Hu2

Despite earlier premonitions that East Asia might be ‘ripe for rivalry’, inter-
state relations in this region have generally become less tense in recent years.
Naturally, this observation does not deny the existence of ongoing tension, such
as pertaining to maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. However,
compared to those bygone years when East Asian states were fighting major
wars and lined up in opposing camps, today’s regional interactions are much
calmer and multifaceted. This essay assesses these changing relations in the con-
text of the literature on enduring rivalries and evolving Sino-American relations.
It argues East Asian enduring rivalries, whether sustained, escalated or termi-
nated, are nested in a larger contest for influence involving major powers.
Washington’s involvement plays a pivotal role affecting the trajectory and pros-
pects for enduring rivalries in East Asia.
Enduring rivalries, empirical puzzles, US pivotal role, rivalry persistence and
In an influential article written almost 20 years ago but continues to be cited,
Aaron Friedberg (1993/1994) expressed his premonitions that East Asia might be
‘ripe for rivalry’. He compared East Asia’s prospects for peace and cooperation
1 College Professor of Distinction, Political Science Department, University of Colorado, Boulder,
2 Professor, Department of Politics and Public Administration, Centennial Campus, University of
Hong Kong, Pokfulam Road, Hong Kong.
Corresponding author:
Steve Chan, Political Science Department, UCB 333, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-
0333, USA.
E-mail: steve.chan@colorado.edu

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 2(2)
with Western Europe. These prospects appeared to be distinctly more favourable
for the latter region where liberal democracies, market integration, dense institu-
tional networks and affluence and cosmopolitanism worked to restrain a return to
its acrimonious past. By contrast, these conditions were less pervasive or shal-
lower in East Asia where nationalism, authoritarianism, historical animosities and
divergent cultural traditions appeared to presage a continuation and even intensi-
fication of interstate rivalries.
There have, of course, been important changes since Friedberg wrote his article.
Surely, intra-Asian trade, including commerce between supposed rivals like China
and Taiwan, has expanded enormously. China has become the leading trade part-
ner not only for Taiwan but for South Korea and Japan as well. The number of
intergovernmental institutions and the extent of people-to-people exchanges have
also taken off by leaps and bounds (for instance, nearly one million Taiwanese and
half a million South Koreans now reside in China). Compared to the 1950s, 1960s
and even 1970s, contentious relations have generally abated. Despite recent mari-
time tensions in the South and East China Sea, China, for example, has settled
many of its border disputes and its diplomatic ties with its former adversaries (e.g.,
Russia, India and Vietnam) and its relations with neighbours are arguably more
cordial now than at least some more tense periods previously. This does not mean
that old rivalries have been buried but it does beg the question of what constitutes
an enduring rivalry in East Asia. Among other questions, how many militarized
disputes are required in order for a dyad to be considered an enduring rivalry and
how long does a peaceful interval have to be maintained in order to consider an
enduring rivalry to have ended (e.g., Bennett, 1997; Colaresi, Rasler & Thompson,
2007; Diehl & Goertz, 2000; Goertz & Diehl, 1993; Thompson, 1995; Stinnet t &
Diehl, 2001).
This article critiques Friedberg’s thesis against a growing literature on endur-
ing rivalry. There is a rather substantial quantitative literature on interstate rivalry,
which commonly refers to chronically contentious dyads as enduring rivals. These
relations have attracted scholarly attention because, while they constitute a small
minority of all interstate relations, they have been responsible for a disproportion-
ately large number of militarized interstate disputes (MIDs) and wars (Bennett &
Nordstrom, 2000). Enduring rivals are states that experience recurrent militarized
disputes, and these disputes have often developed into full-scale wars. Conflict
recidivism and the danger of escalation are the underlying policy and theoretical
reasons that motivate a concern for enduring rivalries.
One approach to operationalize the concept of enduring rivalry has been to
define it in terms of the frequency of MIDs involving a particular dyad. It has
sought to identify such contentious relations on the basis of whether a dyad has
experienced at least six militarized disputes during a 20-year period (Hensel,
Goertz & Diehl, 2000; Diehl & Gertz, 2000). Although this number (six) does not
have any inherent theoretical rationale, it points to a chronically high level of
tension as the defining characteristic of a rivalry. While recognizing this feature,
another approach to rivalry identification has given more attention to mutual per-
ceptions of threat (e.g., Colaresi et al., 2007; Thompson, 1995). This reciprocal

Chan and Hu 135
sense of danger distinguishes rivalries from other antagonistic relations whereby,
say, Grenada, Panama and even Iraq and North Korea may be said to have felt an
existential threat from the US but not the reverse. Presumably, rivalries entail two-
sided rather than one-sided threat perception (Hewitt & Wilkenfeld, 1999;
Thompson, 1995, 2001). As just implied, the leaders of those states involved in a
rivalry must also see themselves engaging in a competitive contest. And as implied
by the idea of competition, the contesting states should be at least roughly matched
in their national capabilities. Even though the US and Cuba, and Russia and
Georgia (or Ukraine), may have antagonistic relations, one would normally not
use rivalry to describe their relations. Should relations across the Taiwan Strait be
described as such? Furthermore, although rivalries are necessarily about contesta-
tion over something, such as, interstate influence, regime legitimacy, disputed
territories and even national or ethnic identities, not all such disputations would
be considered rivalries. Most people would not consider the so-called Cod War
between England and Iceland a rivalry. In short, rivalry as a concept engages
several aspects that jointly define it. It involves two approximately equally
matched contestants seemingly locked in a relationship of perpetual tension that
presents recurrent threats to break out in war.
In calling attention to some East Asian relations that might have been ‘ripe for
rivalry’, Friedberg appeared to suggest that these relations were likely to experi-
ence elevated tension and might even be poised to enter a period of protracted and
intensified contest. Some of these relations, such as those across the Taiwan Strait
and the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, had already gone through multiple
militarized disputes before Friedberg’s article. According to at least this latter
consideration if not other criteria, their extant relations were already rivalries—
and not just ‘ripe for rivalry’. Depending on the particular aspect(s) emphasized,
one might argue that Sino-Japanese, Sino-Indian, Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-
Russian relations had also already become rivalries at one time or another before
the early 1990s.
How have these dyads’ relations evolved since Friedberg’s article? There are at
least four possibilities. (1) Have these relations continued the state of affairs prev-
alent in the early 1990s? (2) Have they entered a process of détente and conflict
abatement? (3) Have they reached a new level intensified contestation? (4) Or
have the former contestants managed to settle their conflict? Individual pairs of
relations can take one of these paths and depending on the direction of their evolu-
tion, East Asian regional politics in general may be said to have become more or
less contentious—there appear to be more cases falling into the second and fourth
categories than the first and third categories.
One may reasonably argue that China’s relations with some of its neighbours
(Russia, India, South Korea and Taiwan) are substantially more cordial now
compared to, say, the years before the 1990s (that is, taking the end of the Cold
War in 1989 as a watershed event) and certainly in contrast to their relations in
the 1960s. One may even argue that Beijing and Moscow have managed to settle
their rivalry by concluding their border disputes peacefully. While occasional
tension still remains, relations across the Taiwan Strait have clearly undergone

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 2(2)
a process of détente and conflict abatement, a process that has advanced even
further between Beijing and Seoul. Although relations across the 38th parallel on
the Korean peninsula have suffered a setback compared to the state of affairs
during the presidencies of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, they are best
described as a continuation of chronic...

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