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How Historians May Explain the 'East Asian Peace'
Unformatted Document Text:  1 How Historians May Explain the ‘East Asian Peace’ Stein Tønnesson International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO) This paper discusses how historians may go about seeking to explain that there has been so relatively little war in the East Asian region since 1979, after a period of three decades when East Asia was the world’s most war prone region, despite the fact that many serious territorial disputes remain, and that only some of the East Asian countries have made the transition to a democratic political system. 1 Since 1979, East Asia has been surprisingly peaceful. While there were on average ten armed conflicts 2 going on in East Asia each year in the period 1946–79, the average was down to 8 in the period 1980–2005. And if we only count conflicts with more than 1,000 battle deaths in one year (the PRIO Uppsala dataset’s threshold for qualifying an armed conflict as “war”), there were 4 such conflicts going on in an average year during 1946–79, but just 0.5 during 1980–2005. The worst year after WW2 was 1949, with 15 armed conflicts, eight of which were “wars”. The most peaceful year since 1945 was 2004, with four minor conflicts, none of which exceeded the 1,000 threshold. The tendency is even clearer if we look at how many people (soldiers and civilians) who were killed in acts of war (battle related deaths). While the total number of battle deaths in East Asia during the thirty years 1950–79 is estimated at 4.2 million, the number of battle deaths in the 26 years from 1980 to 2005 is calculated at just a little over 100,000 (Figure 1, based on data presented in Lacina and Gleditsch 2005). Battle death figures show that the first period after World War 2 was characterized by very high numbers of casualties (although lower than during WW2), mainly because of the Chinese Civil War, the First Indochina War and the Korean War. More people were killed in war in East Asia – and worldwide - in 1950 than in any other year since WW2. However, the mid-50s, after Stalin had died, the Korean armistice had been signed, Indochina had been divided by the Geneva conference, while the Bandung conference was held in Indonesia, and before Mao’s Great Leap Forward, were relatively peaceful. Then, from the late 1950s, the Second Indochina War took off and became the worst of all wars after 1945 in terms of the cumulated number of battle deaths. The last East Asian wars to take lives in the tens of thousands within a short time were the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978–79 and the ensuing Chinese invasion of Vietnam’s northern border provinces from January to 1 ‘East Asia’ consists of Northeast Asia (Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, and China with Hong Kong and Taiwan) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma [Myanmar], Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines, Brunei, and East Timor). 2 An ‘armed conflict’ is defined in the PRIO-Uppsala dataset as “a contested incompatibility that concerns governmente or territory or both where the use of armed force between two parties results in at least 25 battl-related deaths in a year. Of these two parties, at least one has to be the government of a state.”

Authors: Tønnesson, Stein.
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1
How Historians May Explain the ‘East Asian Peace’
Stein Tønnesson
International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO)


This paper discusses how historians may go about seeking to explain
that there has been so relatively little war in the East Asian region since
1979, after a period of three decades when East Asia was the world’s
most war prone region, despite the fact that many serious territorial
disputes remain, and that only some of the East Asian countries have
made the transition to a democratic political system.
1

Since 1979, East Asia has been surprisingly peaceful. While there were on average ten
armed conflicts
2
going on in East Asia each year in the period 1946–79, the average was
down to 8 in the period 1980–2005. And if we only count conflicts with more than 1,000
battle deaths in one year (the PRIO Uppsala dataset’s threshold for qualifying an armed
conflict as “war”), there were 4 such conflicts going on in an average year during 1946–
79, but just 0.5 during 1980–2005. The worst year after WW2 was 1949, with 15 armed
conflicts, eight of which were “wars”. The most peaceful year since 1945 was 2004, with
four minor conflicts, none of which exceeded the 1,000 threshold. The tendency is even
clearer if we look at how many people (soldiers and civilians) who were killed in acts of
war (battle related deaths). While the total number of battle deaths in East Asia during the
thirty years 1950–79 is estimated at 4.2 million, the number of battle deaths in the 26
years from 1980 to 2005 is calculated at just a little over 100,000 (Figure 1, based on data
presented in Lacina and Gleditsch 2005). Battle death figures show that the first period
after World War 2 was characterized by very high numbers of casualties (although lower
than during WW2), mainly because of the Chinese Civil War, the First Indochina War
and the Korean War. More people were killed in war in East Asia – and worldwide - in
1950 than in any other year since WW2. However, the mid-50s, after Stalin had died, the
Korean armistice had been signed, Indochina had been divided by the Geneva
conference, while the Bandung conference was held in Indonesia, and before Mao’s
Great Leap Forward, were relatively peaceful. Then, from the late 1950s, the Second
Indochina War took off and became the worst of all wars after 1945 in terms of the
cumulated number of battle deaths. The last East Asian wars to take lives in the tens of
thousands within a short time were the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978–79 and
the ensuing Chinese invasion of Vietnam’s northern border provinces from January to
1
‘East Asia’ consists of Northeast Asia (Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia, and China with Hong
Kong and Taiwan) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma [Myanmar], Malaysia,
Singapore, Indonesia, The Philippines, Brunei, and East Timor).
2
An ‘armed conflict’ is defined in the PRIO-Uppsala dataset as “a contested incompatibility that concerns
governmente or territory or both where the use of armed force between two parties results in at least 25
battl-related deaths in a year. Of these two parties, at least one has to be the government of a state.”


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