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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

The experience of war in East Asia

Hugues Tertrais

Texte intégral

1March 2003

2The spectacle of war, which the world has faced for the last few months, is undoubtedly a new example of its kind. The way in which the conflict has been dealt, however, is reminiscent of events that have taken place in Asia’s recent past. The United Nations’(UN) first resolution to use force was in 1950 against Korea. In protesting against the UN’s recognition of the Republic of China (Taipei) rather than the People’s Republic of China (Beijing), the USSR had boycotted the organisation and was therefore unable to veto this decision, despite being a permanent member of the Security Council. As a result, when North Korean (Pyongyang) troops crossed the 38th parallel, the United States easily convinced the Security Council to intervene, using mostly American military resources. The war lasted three years.

3When the United States intervened in the other major in Asia conflict, the Vietnam War, in the years that followed, they acted alone. Nevertheless, there is one similarity with the current situation. In distancing themselves from the American strategy today, France and Germany are, to a certain extent, imitating the dramatic stance adopted by De Gaulle in the 1960s. As early as 1964, France expressed serious reservations about the American policy in South-East Asia as a member of the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO, now dissolved). In 1966, after withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) integrated command structure, De Gaulle publicly condemned the United States’ stance while in Phnom Penh, on the border of a Vietnam already at war. As for whether Washington’s secret services failed on September 11th 2001 – they did. However, the same was said after the Tet Offensive on 31 January 1968. Major events are, by definition, unpredictable. Otherwise they would not happen.

4War is always an adventure. We know how it begins, but rarely how it ends. At least, this is what we have learnt over the course of the 20th century, and especially as a result of events in Asia. The choice to heavily bombard Iraq in order to force it into withdrawing from Kuwait in 1991 was no doubt the result of past experience. The Vietnam War, despite the hard-line stance of 1965, had begun in a more moderate fashion. By launching retaliatory air raids north of the 17th parallel and sending troops into the south, Washington hoped to dissuade Hanoi from encouraging the insurrection against the Saigon regime. We all know what happened next. North Vietnam, supported by Communist forces, was unmoved. This led to a gradual increase in the scale of conflicts and American involvement, and neither side obtained a decisive victory in the field. Eight years later, Washington signed the Paris Peace Accords with stakeholders. This allowed the United States to withdraw from the country, but it did not resolve the underlying issue. In 1975, on the eve of the People’s Army entrance into Saigon, the last of the Americans fled the city in a tragic ballet of helicopters that lasted almost a day.

5Can armed conflict last for so long without having a major impact on the region? There are no clear economic causes underlying this conflict. Nevertheless, as soon as war was declared and for as long as it lasted, it became an enormous business, attracting and producing financial flows and generating factory orders on an unheard of scale, especially in East Asia. This was also the case for the French Indochina and Korean Wars; the length of the conflict affected the region considerably and played an important role in its configuration – over the millions of people who died and the destruction that took place. Just a few years after Japan surrendered in 1945, the Korean War was an opportunity for the country to become an industrial force once again. Asia’s newly industrialised countries (NICs) – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore – took off as a result of the Vietnam War. The history of conflict on the one hand and economic growth on the other are therefore closely intertwined. The different levels of development in East Asia can be at least partially explained by the confrontations with which the region has faced.

6Today, the risks of war have not disappeared. The arms race affecting Asia from north to south and the spectacular increase in defence spending will no doubt be put to use some day. These resources are being accumulated in or near sensitive areas including the Taiwan Strait and the Korean Peninsula, the places President Bush identified as the Asian component of his “axis of evil”. In addition, since the Bali bombings, a new form of terrorism has emerged to put countries on their guards; even if we must fight against a method (terrorism, on a large scale, for example), we would also need to, at some point, give a name to the threat or threats that it poses. In the meantime, recent history has shown that East Asia is not unaffected by the shockwaves emanating from conflicts in other regions. As a result of the financial and strategic globalisation that has taken place since World War II, what happens in East Asia is now linked to what happens elsewhere.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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