TFR 35 – East Asia in Transition: Challenges for the Trilateral Countries


Just as the mid-'60s marked the beginnings of a period of extraordinary growth and development along the East Asian rim of the Pacific, so in the late '80s new challenges confront the region especially the developing countries of which it is still largely composed.1 How these challenges are met will be of momentous consequence, not only to the developing countries of East Asia but also to the broader international system of which the Trilateral countries have been the principal custodians. The stability and prosperity of the region are of obvious importance to those Trilateral countries that are themselves Pacific nations Japan, the United States and Canada. The stake of Western Europe is also large, perhaps more so than is yet recognized. In an interdependent global economy, the repercussions of the policies and economic health of such a populous and dynamic region are of major European concern. Even strategic interests can no longer be contained within separate geographic boxes labelled "Atlantic" and "Pacific." East Asian contributions to stability and deterrence are thus of significant importance to Western Europe.2

Looking back, it is easy to see that the foundations for the now widely anticipated "Pacific Century" were laid in the mid-'60s. Japan's economic miracle, already well underway, was fueling growth elsewhere in the region. The opportunities provided by an open and favorable global market were being effectively grasped by non-Communist East Asian countries. Adopting pragmatic market-oriented policies and guided by the conviction that the remedy for domestic turmoil lay in economic development and modernization, these countries achieved and maintained rates of growth unequalled elsewhere in the Third World growth that was reflected in improved standards of living for their people.

Advances in domestic political stability were paralleled by significantly reduced tensions among many regional countries. The formation in 1967 of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) stimulated increasing cooperation, self-confidence, and solidarity among its members. The same period marked the beginning of the long, delicate process of reconciliation between Japan and the Republic of Korea as diplomatic relations were established and a large-scale Japanese aid and investment program was initiated. It was in the '60s also that the break between the USSR and the PRC reached its decisive point, heightening tensions between the two Communist powers but, in its effects on their policies toward their neighbors, contributing in the longer run to the stability of the region. The Vietnam War, which intensified greatly in the '60s, did not disrupt the wider region's progress; and the end of American military involvement in Indochina in 1975, although traumatic, did not lead to the widely feared withdrawal of America from the region. Meanwhile, tensions between Hanoi and its communist neighbors increased.

The achievements of the past two decades have given rise to new challenges today. Having successfully pursued trade-oriented strategies of economic growth, the East Asian developing countries now see continuing success threatened by global trends commodity price declines, protectionism, and heightened competition for markets. Trade frictions have moved to center stage in domestic politics on both sides of the Pacific and could come to shadow political relationships. Great differences in stages of economic development remain obstacles to the development of regional mechanisms for dealing collectively with economic problems. The global system devised in the period of Atlantic dominance has yet to adjust to the new economic prowess of East Asia, while some of the most successful East Asian economies are finding it difficult to adjust to the global responsibilities stemming from their economic achievements.

At the same time, the political institutions of the developing states of the region are facing new challenges. Long-time authoritarian leaders are approaching the end of their tenure in countries that lack regularized and tested succession procedures. Everywhere, members of a new, bettereducated generation with changing values and aspirations are coming to the fore. And throughout the region, enhanced pressures for increased participation and diffusion of power are challenging patterns of authoritarianism and government control adopted in the past. The argument that new and developing countries cannot afford democratic freedoms has become less compelling as internal and external threats have become less potent and levels of education have risen. The argument that only authoritarian governments can maintain the order, discipline, and dedication to national purpose that economic development requires has become less persuasive as long and unchallenged tenure in some countries has magnified opportunities for corruption and entrenched bureaucratic power, and has discouraged flexible adaptation to changing requirements. The counterproductive impact of tight government controls has been underlined by the economic failures of Burma and the Communist states relative to the market economies, where considerable room for free enterprise has existed side by side with government planning and direction.

Significantly, pressures for more open political systems are coming primarily from the new, larger, and more sophisticated professional, technocratic, and business elites (increasingly possessing advanced degrees from leading Trilateral academic institutions) who have been both the product and the major beneficiaries of economic development. They continue to value stability and their desire is for evolutionary, not revolutionary, change. Indeed, in only two countries of the region does desire for change currently manifest itself in significant revolutionary movements. One is Burma, where economic advance has been stifled by the policies of an ideologically rigid and isolationist regime, and where national integration has been blocked by the uncompromising approach of the central government to demands of ethnic minority areas for greater autonomy. The other is the Philippines, where restored democratic government cannot quickly remedy the ills entrenched by Ferdinand Marcos' corrupt authoritarianism and disastrous economic policies.

Although the desire for political change is generally evolutionary, political transitions even peaceful ones are rarely accomplished without some turbulence. In more open systems, moreover, the appearance of turbulence is often heightened by the more pronounced criticism and overt agitation that freedom of expression permits, by the greater contentiousness of political parties when the prize for which they contest is real power, and by differences in motivation and perceived roles between parliaments and executive leaders. Once pressures for greater political participation become widespread, however, stubborn resistance is an equally likely cause of turbulence. In the new era in East Asia, this was amply demonstrated in the last years of the Marcos regime. The people of South Korea, by contrast, are beginning to fulfill their own aspirations for political participation under much more favorable circumstances, thanks to last-minute recognition by the government in June of 1987 that blocked evolution might well open the path to chaos or revolution.

Responsibility for adjusting to new requirements and taking advantage of new opportunities rests primarily with the East Asian developing countries themselves. Nevertheless, if the Trilateral countries recognize the value of the political evolution that is underway, they can adjust their policies and behavior in ways which can help create a generally favorable climate for positive change.

Chapter I of this report focuses on political evolution in the developing countries of East Asia. In this largely analytical chapter, we examine the links among political evolution, economic growth and the reduction of external threats. Governments have tended to be more responsive to pressures for economic liberalization than to demands for more open and participatory political processes, but political evolution is undeniably underway. The interests and roles of Trilateral countries in this evolution are touched upon briefly, in anticipation of later discussion in Chapter IV.

Chapter II is more policy-oriented, given its focus on issues of economic adaptation. The policy issues for Trilateral countries are more immediate here: How should global economic arrangements be adapted to reflect the rising strength and rising obligations of East Asia? How should the adaptation challenges for Japan, North America, and the European Community be approached? What policy adjustments can be requested of East Asian developing countries?

The security environment in East Asia the focus of Chapter III has been more benign in this decade than at any time since the end of World War II. Armed, non-guerilla conflict across borders is essentially limited to Indochina; the potential for such conflict remains significant only between the two Koreas. The advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union raises interesting questions. While Western military strength must be maintained, it will also be important to seek ways to encourage a constructive Soviet role in the region.

Chapter IV brings together our policy conclusions and recommendations for the Trilateral countries.


Richard C. Holbrooke, Managing Director, Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc.; former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Roderick MacFarquhar, Professor of Government and Director, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University; former Member of Parliament, United Kingdom
Kazuo Nukazawa, Managing Director, Keidanren (Japan Federation of Economic organizations), Tokyo

Evelyn Colbert, Professorial Lecturer, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Associate Author)

Table of Contents

I. Political Evolution
- Economic Growth and Political Evolution
- Reduction of External Threats
- The Adaptation Challenge
- The East Asian Response
- The Stake of the Trilateral Countries
II. Economic Adaptation
- The Rise of East Asia
- The Adaptation Challenge for Global Economic Arrangements
- Adaptation Challenges for Trilateral Countries and Developing East Asia
- Conclusion
III. The International Environment
- The Favorable Balance
- Conflict and Potential Conflict Areas
- A New Soviet Union?
IV. Conclusions and Recommendations

  • Topics: Economics, Multilateral Cooperation
  • Region:  North America, Middle East, Pacific Asia
  • Publisher:  The Trilateral Commission
  • Publication Date:  © 1988
  • ISBN:  0-930503-04-X
  • Pages:  80
  • Complete Text: Click here to download