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  • Asia’s “Tragic” Return to Great-Power Politics?
  • See Seng Tan (bio)

In 2001, John Mearsheimer published The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, which compared great-power dynamics to a Greek tragedy wherein the protagonists fall prey to some fatal error or misjudgment of their own doing.1 For Mearsheimer, great powers behave aggressively in their endless pursuit of power, all too often with tragic consequences. One does not have to buy into Mearsheimer’s determinism and pessimism to appreciate his insights on great-power rivalry. Where the global and the regional intersect, such rivalries tend to draw in smaller regional states, compelling them to take sides in those power struggles, despite their natural inclination to hedge.2 As Sheldon Simon, writing on the impact of great-power games on Southeast Asia, observed over three decades ago, great powers seek to enhance their global positions relative to those of their peer competitors, which leads them to view small states as potential partners in local balances against rival great powers.3

For much of the post–Cold War period, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has acted both as a buffer between the great powers and as a bridge linking them through a region-wide security architecture centered on ASEAN. In recent years, however, growing tensions between the great powers have driven a wedge between these Southeast Asian countries and rendered it difficult for ASEAN to hold the ring. All of this suggests that Asia could be heading toward a challenging time of insecurity and possibly even conflict. That said, this essay argues that the projected tragedy of the [End Page 36] great powers that the notion of the Thucydides trap seems to suggest need not be Asia’s future.4

Great Powers and Regional Architecture

Shortly after the Cold War ended, a spate of scholars speculated on the likely prospect of Asia, home to a number of rising powers and potential challengers to the United States—including China, Japan, India, and possibly even Russia—becoming a “cockpit of great power conflict” in the words of one observer.5 They warned of the region’s imminent slide toward unbridled competitive quests for power, especially in the absence of robust multilateral institutions that could mitigate the adverse effects of great-power rivalry in the region by restraining and regulating the conduct of states.6 Although not lacking in flashpoints—tensions over the Taiwan Strait, the Korean Peninsula, and subsequently the East and South China Seas—Asia did not plunge into the dark chaos of interstate war as forewarned by the realpolitik prophets of doom and gloom. For their part, regional experts highlighted instead the manifold “pathways” and “pillars” of security, which not only reflect the region’s complexity but presumably mitigate tendencies for conflict.7 Others insisted that an assertive China did not automatically denote an expansionist China, or at least not as long as its military capabilities remained underdeveloped.8

Contrary to the traditional expectations regarding great powers and their purported primacy and preponderance in regional affairs, post–Cold War Asia instead became host to an emerging security architecture that defied the conventional wisdom on regional order, power, and influence. Rather than the United States or its putative strategic competitors—or, for that matter, a concert of the strong and the powerful—reordering and managing Asia, ASEAN ended up calling more than its fair share of the shots in defining [End Page 37] the contents and contours of contemporary Asian regionalism.9 So unusual was this development in the annals of international affairs that some refer to it as a “structural flaw.”10 The idea that the world’s most powerful nations would volitionally defer to a grouping of developing nations in the shaping of the region’s diplomatic-security agenda and convention flew in the face of traditional wisdom.11

It soon became evident that this anomaly would endure only if the great powers and extraregional stakeholders of the ASEAN-led architecture were prepared to maintain the “grand bargain” they struck to regulate their conduct and defer regional leadership to ASEAN.12 Cracks in this edifice began to show late in the first decade of the 2000s. In...


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