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Who Will Dominate Asia in the Coming Decade?

The Asia-Pacific today is characterized by a mixture of intergovernmental organizations, alliance blocs, and individual states of varying levels of strength, organization, and regional clout. Indeed, the Asia-Pacific as a region perhaps stands alone in the world for the extent to which the complex interplay of these various actors influences, and is influenced by, regional dynamics. Ultimately, it is difficult to predict which of these actors will come to dominate the region over the next decade. As stated, their development and regional position are all influenced to varying degrees by changes in regional dynamics. In the event of a belligerently rising China, for example, the region may come to be dominated by a bipolarity of alliance blocs. Alternatively, should regional prosperity and interconnectedness continue to grow, it may come to be dominated by intergovernmental organizations. Nonetheless, taking into consideration general regional trends, a basic prediction for the next decade can be made: the Asia-Pacific of 2024 will likely be characterized by the dominance of individual states, yet within a broad alliance bloc/treaty framework.

The Asia-Pacific is a rising region in which various states, such as China, Japan, and South Korea, are becoming increasingly more economically, militarily, and internationally powerful and significant. At the same time, the United States, which has largely dominated the region over the last half century, is experiencing a gradual decline. Even if the decline of the United States is overstated, as it often may be, the extent of its power relative to the rising states of the Asia-Pacific is narrowing. In light of this, the states of the Asia-Pacific are becoming more comfortable with and more willing to craft their own foreign policy goals and intentions, and are more capable of unilaterally engaging the regional and international community. Considering the complex interdependence and interconnectedness which has emerged in the region, individual states are beginning to reevaluate longstanding economic and security relationships and are starting to develop new ones in order to preserve their continued economic growth. Meanwhile, because of the security threats manifest from the rise of powers such as China, they are starting to come into arrangements which balance or “hedge” against potential threats. No longer is the character of international relations in the Asia-Pacific dominated by the United States and its alliance system; rather, it is coming to be dominated by the actions and interactions of rising regional states.

That said, the United States’ alliance system still serves as a framework in which this balancing takes place, and still plays a prominent role in the region. States that have traditionally been allied with the United States, such as Japan and South Korea, still look to it for protection against an increasingly hegemonic China, and such is likely to be the case in the next decade. Though these states may be more willing to make their own unilateral foreign policy goals and decisions, such decisions are likely to fall within the foreign policy interests of the American alliance system. Seeking a degree of protection against China, these states will turn to the American alliance bloc; as of yet, there is no other real option. Meanwhile, states which have historically fallen outside of the American alliance system may seek to join it as a strategy to “hedge” against China. Even if such a decision is taken by a state solely to maintain its own position instead of supporting the alliance, it will nonetheless reinforce the significance the American alliance bloc plays in the region. At the same time, China is seeking to foster its own close security and economic ties with various states in order to create a counter to the American alliance system. To a large extent, China is doing so in order to buoy its own strength against the United States. As such, a broad alliance framework is likely to be the method through which individual states will dominate the region.

Thus, rising states in the Asia-Pacific will likely come to dominate it in the next decade. As they seek to continue their economic and military growth, they are likely to forge their own foreign policy goals and unilaterally take action. Each state is now more actively making security calculations, and accordingly is now more willing to break old arraignments or make new ones in order to preserve that security. Yet, despite this coming dominance of individual states, they will likely still fall within a system of alliances blocs. These alliance blocs, such as the American alliance system or a future Chinese alliance system, provide individual states with a degree of security and support that they cannot and would not receive if alone. Accordingly, alliance blocs will still maintain a position of dominance in the Asia-Pacific, and, if not, will at the very least help individual states come to dominate the region.

The Asia-Pacific’s Most Significant Security Threat

The Asia-Pacific today is a region facing a diverse array of security challenges and issues, yet none appear to pose a significant and immediate threat to continued regional stability. Undoubtedly, issues such as piracy, terrorism, and climate change are present in the region; indeed, piracy is quite rampant in the Strait of Malacca, a major global shipping route, and acts of terrorism can be seen in the 2002 Bali bombings and the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway. Yet, despite these issues, they are not immediately pressing, and are being proactively dealt with: ultimately, regional piracy affects only a limited amount of global shipping, the region has taken active steps to countering terrorism through multilateral security arraignments and support from the United States, and the worst affects of climate change are decades away. Instead, the most important security threat facing the region today may not be an intrastate or transnational issue, but rather an interstate one. This may seem paradoxical – as a region “locked into” long-standing and stagnated international disputes, such as territorial disputes over the Senkaku islands and South China Sea, there seems to be no immediate chance for interstate conflict. Yet states in the region, especially China, have recently escalated their rhetoric involving such disputes, and have engaged in military “saber-rattling” over them. Such conditions present the opportunity for a serious security issue, that of unintended escalation into direct interstate conflict.

States “slipping” into conflict, or coming close to doing so, is not without historical precedent. One need only look at the Cuban Missile Crisis to see how military escalation and “saber rattling” over a source of diplomatic tension can bring two states to the brink of conflict, even when their leaderships have calculated that conflict is outside of their national interests. Scholars of security studies acknowledge that, though a state’s overall foreign policy goals, intentions, and actions are at the discretion of that state’s upper leadership, the “tangibles on the ground,” especially involving military action, are often under the command of the immediate military leadership. As such, military activity that brings two states into escalating levels conflict may occur if the military leadership in the immediate area of that conflict allows it do so. In the case of the Asia-Pacific, for example, a standoff between Japanese and Chinese warships in the South China Sea may escalate into conflict if the commanders of those ships unilaterally decide to conduct, or are forced to react to, a show of force. Alternatively, the circumstances of a situation may push the militaries of two states into a position of increasing hostility and tension. For example, a 2001 crash involving an American military surveillance aircraft and a Chinese warplane, which was tailing the American aircraft, quickly became a heated and tense issue between the two states, one which offered the potential for an escalation into military conflict.

Of course, as the example of the 2001 warplane crash demonstrates, the escalation of a conflict on a low level may not necessarily push two states into broader conflict and war. Yet, considering the circumstances of the region today, it seems increasingly possible that such might be the case. The states participating in territorial disputes, especially China and Japan over the South China Sea, have come to espouse strong rhetoric over those disputes. As these states’ governments increase their rhetoric, the increasingly premise their legitimacy upon a successful resolution to the issue which is within their favor. For the Chinese government, success in the South China Sea will demonstrate that the Communist Party has lifted China into a position of regional power, has made the country militarily strong, and has restored China as a rightful hegemon. For the Japanese government, success in the South China Sea demonstrates that it can successfully contain and curtail the threatening rise of China. As such, failure on the part of either state to accomplish its territorial goals will amount to the premise of what those goals are built around being delegitimized. Yet, because these goals have become a prominent part of these states’ rhetorical positions, and have become significant parts of their national perceptions and understandings, it is becoming increasingly difficult for those states to back away from the issue. Accordingly, should conflict begin to escalate on a low level, these states may be left with no better choice than to escalate it to a broader extent.

In the case of China and Japan, it may be that, should a military skirmish break out in the South China Sea, both states will need to escalate militarily in order to “save face” domestically and maintain their rhetorical position internationally. The Chinese Communist government cannot afford to back away from the South China Sea, especially after it has premised its continued governance on its ability to raise China to a position of prominence. The Japanese government cannot afford to allow China a victory in the South China Sea, thereby confirming the Japanese peoples’ fears of a rising China. The leaderships of these states have decided that it is more within their interest to escalate these territorial disputes to the brink of conflict instead of actually resolving them through conflict; however, should events spiral out of their control and conflict escalate beyond their intentions, they may be left with little option but to escalate further. A potential war between China and Japan would be devastating for regional stability and prosperity; as such, the potential for these states to slip into conflict, which seems more and more likely considering the extent to which they will “saber-rattle” and the character of their rhetoric, is perhaps the most significant security issue facing the region today.

The United States’ Coming Role in a Changing Asia-Pacific

While the rise of ISIS, the “War on Terror,” and the crisis in the Ukraine may have the attention of U.S. policymakers focused on Europe and the Middle East, it is in the Asia-Pacific region that American strategic interests are most at stake. With China rising rapidly on the world stage, it will be increasingly difficult for the United States to act as the dominant regional actor. As suggested by its recent “pivot” to the region, the United States needs to refocus attention on the Asia-Pacific if it wishes to play a constructive, balancing role in the coming decades. However, the circumstances of the region will limit America’s capacity to ‘contain’ China and directly shape the balance of power. This paper explores the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific. Drawing into consideration the numerous possibilities for and limitations on American influence in the region, it lays out a possible policy direction the United States can take in the coming decade – that of ‘cooperative competition’ with China.

 The ‘Asia-Pacific’ is an expansive region, home to major powers such as China, Japan, and Australia and to advanced economies such as Singapore and South Korea. For over the last half century a key characteristic of the Asia-Pacific has been the American presence, a result of the United States’ regional participation in World War II and Cold War strategy of ‘containing’ communism. Having forged close military and economic relationships with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the United States was arguably the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific through the latter half of the 20th century. This leading role was maintained despite multifaceted and often daunting challenges: the “loss” of China to the Soviet camp and subsequent U.S. alignment with its Maoist government, the costly and protracted wars in Korea and Vietnam, and the United States’ seeming inability to compete economically with Japan in the 1970s and 1980s[1]. America’s historically preserving influence in the region thus suggests durable leadership and offers hope for its continuation through the 21st century.

 Yet the Asia-Pacific today is a region of changing dynamics and balances of power, the likes of which present an enormous challenge to American regional leadership. The United States itself is emerging out of the worst recession in almost a century, protracted and inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is suffering from acute political polarization and gridlock. These factors have eroded American international clout and limited the United States’ ability to make policy for the region. Meanwhile, an increasingly assertive Russia is trying to reestablish itself in Asia. Japan and India are trying to play larger regional roles, and China is on course to be a global superpower second only to the United States by the 2020s[2]. Looking at the region in the ‘Realist’ perspective of international relations, strategic cooperation and balancing between these powers – especially the United States and China – point to future characterized by major-power competition. American policymakers cannot expect the United States to be the unrivaled hegemon in the coming decades.

However, a structural polarity between the United States and China has not emerged. A Cold War-esque system of competing blocs and alliances is no longer a realistic scenario for the region. Rather than aligning with either the United States or China, many countries have opted to form close ties with both[3]. Increasingly, states in the Asia-Pacific seek to maximize their range of strategic options by avoiding commitments that could lead them into conflict. They do not feel a need to seek alignment with a major power in order to protect themselves. Instead, states are forming diverse bilateral and multilateral relationships in order to increase their security and support strategic interests. The unwillingness of states in the region to be put into a ‘sphere of influence’ constrains the United States’ ability to pursue a strategy of ‘direct’ containment and coalition-building against China. Still, China’s growing military capability has increasingly motivated neighbors to draw themselves more closely to the United States[4].

This “hedging” strategy of engagement with both China and the United States is in part a result of complex interdependence developing between growing regional economies. China is the number one or two trading partner of almost every country in East Asia, and six of China’s biggest trade partners are found in the Asia-Pacific[5]. As a major importer of Asian-produced goods, the United States is also deeply connected to the region economically. ‘Liberal’ international theorists see these economic ties and this interdependence as binding countries together, thereby restricting their strategic competition. These economic ties are an important part of the security calculus for many states. Deeply interdependent with both America and China, Asian countries would resist choosing sides in a future conflict[6]. A conflict or trade dispute between the United States and China would greatly impact the economies of countries throughout the region, if not the world. Recognizing this, policymakers in both Beijing and Washington are wary of competition which would jeopardize their economic relationship.

The Asia-Pacific is also marked by increased intra-regional interaction and interdependence and the development of multilateral institutions. Liberal international relations would argue that these organizations, along with other forms of multilateralism, allow states in the region to build norms of cooperation and deepen strategic ties. More than a dozen major intergovernmental organizations can be found in the region, though there currently exists no single pan-regional organization[7]. It should be noted, however, that while the proliferation of intergovernmental organizations is becoming a feature of the regional order, they are at present under-institutionalized, often non-binding, and too diffuse[8]. Still, the growth of Asian multilateralism and interdependence nonetheless offers the United States a chance for deeper integration into, and thus influence in, the region.

As China’s rise is bound to influence and alter regional dynamics, it is crucial for American policymakers to understand China’s perspective and foreign policy goals. A stable regional environment that supports China’s economic growth and regional influence is the preferred outcome for Chinese policymakers. China’s strategic dilemma thus lies in the difficulty of forming a dominant regional role without antagonizing the United States or alienating other regional powers. To achieve this aim, the Chinese disclaim a desire to dominate Asia, announcing instead that they pursue a policy of equality, mutual respect, and non-interference. Yet increasingly, Chinese policymakers are expecting weaker countries to defer to China’s wishes[9]. Meanwhile, China is highly sensitive to and suspicious of America’s power projection, which it views as an attempt to contain China’s economic and political rise. Nonetheless, Chinese policymakers acknowledge that the desire to avoid a military confrontation with the United States will encourage US-Chinese cooperation[10].

Such are the dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, which serve as the context for America’s policy in and recent “pivot” to the region. The pivot can be seen as the United States’ strategic rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, a signal to regional powers that its attention on the Middle East, terrorism, and democratization is over[11]. It is easy to see China’s rise as the causal explanation for the pivot, but it is far from the only one. Piracy, international smuggling, illegal drug trades, nuclear proliferation, climate change, and natural disasters are only a few of the many issues in the Asia-Pacific which extend beyond the nature of the U.S.-China relationship. To frame the United States’ renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific as simply a means to counter China’s rise, then, risks drawing suspicion from Chinese policymakers and limits the possibilities for American engagement in the region. As such, the United States’ has tried to portray the pivot as focusing on the region at large[12]. Indeed, the pivot is really just a continuation of policies that have shaped America’s interaction with the region for nearly a decade – forming deeper ties with established and emerging markets and strengthening its regional diplomatic, military, and multilateral ties.

Moving forward into the next decade, the United States should continue, and redouble, those efforts. American policymakers must recognize that China’s rise is an inevitability, that the United States is heavily constrained in its ability to directly ‘contain’ China, and that conflict with China is highly undesirable for the region. How, then, can the United States maintain a dominant role and favorable balance of power in the region? This paper suggests that the United States should play a leading role in creating an environment of cooperation and multilateralism, in which regional actors are mutually pursuant of issues of common interest. The suspicions and security dilemmas that come with ‘realpolitik’ will be tempered by norms of cooperation and mutual support. In such an environment, unilateral aggression or assertions of hegemony will be met with a regional counterbalance; feeling threatened, states will naturally form ‘coalitions’ to contain the threat. Considering the current dynamics of the region, it would thus be strategically and economically detrimental for rising powers such as China to over-assert their power. With regards to the Chinese-American relationship, such an environment would enable them to channel competition for regional influence and dominance in a constructive manner. Rather than building spheres of influence through military alliances and power-of-balance considerations, they could do so by taking the lead on facing the vast array of issues affecting the region at large. This ‘cooperative competition’ has the potential to reframe the nature of the Chinese-American relationship in the coming century; rather than two great powers strategically competing for hegemonic dominance over the region, these two great powers can share – potentially even support support each others’ – influence by combating regional issues in a multilateral way.

Such a policy is formed by a consideration of the United States’ limitations in the region and it’s current regional policies. The Cold War-era of alliance blocs and post-Cold War-era of unipolar hegemony are over; the world is increasingly multipolar and increasingly interdependent. Though countries may look to the United States to play a leading regional role, they do not want to be drawn into a major power conflict. Ultimately, the greatest potential for American influence may lie in its ability to engage and strengthen ties with intergovernmental organizations, support regional economies, and combating issues of regional interest. It is, after all, through these means that the United States’ has been able to maintain a position of relevance in a changing region. Though the Asia-Pacific’s present intergovernmental and multilateral environment, upon which this policy relies, is fractured and weak, it is growing – the United States thus has a powerful opportunity to shape it in line with its strategic interests in the coming decade. This policy is further formed by a consideration of domestic American politics. Economic and multilateral ties are not as reliant upon congressional funding as, say, a sustained military presence. By focusing on building norms rather than employing hard power, the United States will be more secure in its regional footing should partisan gridlock or funding cuts come out of Washington.

The Asia-Pacific, and in particular the United States’ relationship with China, is poised to become the international focus of the 21st century. It is thus imperative that the United States pursue a strategy that establishes lasting norms of peaceful cooperation – and peaceful competition – in the coming decade. This is an area marked by changing dynamics which limit the United States’ ability to directly contain China’s rise, but which also offer new possibilities for American regional leadership. Whether American policymakers recognize this and take advantage of it will be seen in the coming years.

Works Cited

[1] Sutter, Robert. “The United States in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 93. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[2] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[3] Ibid, 16.

[4] Cossa, Ralph A. “Security Dynamics in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 368. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[5] Kim, Samuel S. “The Evolving Asian System.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 53. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[6] Shambaugh, David. “International Relations in Asia.” In International Relations of Asia, edited by David Shambaugh and Michael Yahuda, 17-18. Lanham:Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 20.

[9] Roy, Denny. “More Security for Rising China, Less for Others?” AsiaPacific Analysis, no. 106, January 2013.

[10] Xeutong, Yan. “China. Striving for Preventive Cooperation,” Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance. Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

[11] Schiavenza, Matt. “What Exactly Does it Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia?” The Atlantic, August 4, 2014.

[12] Forum Staff. “Regional Perspectives on the U.S. Rebalance.Asia-Pacific Defense Forum, January 1, 2014.

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