Regional Order Reconfigured: China, Japan, and the United States in the Evolving Asia Pacific

August 3, 2017

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Number 390 | August 2, 2017

Regional Order Reconfigured: China, Japan, and the United States in the Evolving Asia Pacific

by Saori Katada and Alex Lin

The Asia Pacific has seen the emergence of new and important regional institutions in the last ten years. Many observers saw such institution-building dynamics primarily through the lens of US-China competition. For example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, before it was scuttled by the Trump Administration, was popularly considered part of a containment strategy implemented by Washington. On the other hand, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) were regarded as alternative venues through which China could avoid or counter encirclement.

Japan was expected to follow the American lead because of the importance of its alliance with the United States. Thus, the countries’ ultimate objectives were seen as fixed: to prevail over rival(s) so as to define a regional order that privileges their own interests. Such views neglected, however, a variety of interests, fluidity of power balance, as well as the multiple utility of regional institutions.

Under the Trump Administration, conventional wisdom has become even more inadequate. Recently, the United States has retreated from the TPP and China has launched the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative. Clearly, this is a period of reconfiguration and realignment in regional order building. The uncertainty introduced by the Trump administration has made alignment patterns more dynamic and unpredictable. For example, despite the stalling of the TPP, China is not pushing for RCEP to follow the trade and investment rules of the so-called “state capitalism.” In fact, Chinese leadership has expressed interest in TPP membership in the past and may still be interested. Another example of realignment comes from Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently suggested that Japan might be open to joining OBOR or AIIB. More fundamentally, the alleged US retreat from Asia has created a vacuum for regional leadership.

How does this power reconfiguration change regional order in the Asia Pacific? China and Japan now stand at a pivotal moment, wherein each confronts different structural constraints and strategic choices. China will enjoy greater success at persuading countries, especially traditional US allies, to join its initiatives. In the past, the United States labelled joining the AIIB as defection and attempted to dissuade its allies from seeking membership. However, given recent signals of enthusiasm exhibited by the Trump Administration to participate in OBOR, such dissuasion from the United States may be less likely.

Of course, this requires that the Chinese leadership can credibly demonstrate that the initiatives do not entail overt geopolitical ambitions, as concerns about China pulling its economic levers and turning OBOR into something more than an investment scheme continue to underpin current discourse. OBOR remains an enigma; questions ranging from what it actually entails, to difficulties associated with implementation, to concerns over whether or not it will be successful – and by what metric – define discussions of OBOR.

Undoubtedly, OBOR appears to be more than just an infrastructure-building project that aims to open market access. However, it is less clear what this “more” entails, and what it might mean from a geostrategic perspective. For countries such as those in Southeast Asia or South Korea, this is the most fundamental and pressing question. In the past, these countries, to varying degrees, have been seeking to establish closer ties with China for economic gains while relying on the United States for security guarantees. So far, this “having the cake and eating it, too” hedging strategy has worked because of the leadership competition between the United States and China. With the United States allegedly retreating from the leadership competition, the key priority for China will be to signal to its neighbors that their space and flexibility to maneuver will not disappear with greater involvement in projects such as AIIB or OBOR. To do so, China will have to refrain from overplaying its advantages and from transforming the current positive-sum, win-win engagement into zero-sum competition with the United States.

On the other hand, Japan might become more inclined to take an independent and leading position in the region. Japan may be less constrained by the United States now than in the past, as exemplified by its evolving position on AIIB. Japan may take advantage of the opening presented by the uncertainty associated with the Trump administration and play a more proactive role in Asia, including getting on board with AIIB and/or OBOR.

Already, Japan is positioning itself as a source of continuity and a potential substitute for the United States by keeping key initiatives alive – such as the TPP without US involvement. Yet, in order for Japan to succeed in these endeavors, it will have to overcome its credibility deficit. Not only was the Japanese government seen as being excessively deferential to US interests as it supported the US-led liberal world order, Japan has never been able to follow through on its independent initiatives in Asian regional institution-building projects. Moreover, Japan often appears self-serving in tailoring its economic leadership to prioritize domestic interests such as the protection of its inefficient agriculture sector.

Japan’s history of being ambivalent about the Asia-Pacific regional project and lacking an independent grand strategy has long undermined its credibility as a leader. Unless Japan can show that the country is ready to stand on its own feet, and not react constantly to US-China dynamics, no one will follow. Therefore, the prospect of TPP without the United States, which the Japanese government is leading now, will be an important test. Can Japan lead the TPP and persuade other countries to remain in the agreement without US involvement? So far, the Japanese government’s efforts to advance the TPP-11 without altering the deal has not garnered enthusiasm among Asian members.

If the United States participates in OBOR, as suggested by President Trump, it will add another layer of complexity: will this undermine Japan’s ability to function as Washington’s substitute by downplaying US-Japan ties and increasing uncertainty in the Asia Pacific? Again, Japan faces this credibility challenge as it tries to assure potential followers and take a leadership role in an uncertain Asia Pacific.

As we begin to see greater US and Japanese participation in Chinese-led initiatives over the next few years, the final piece of the puzzle is whether China will be ready to join initiatives led by Japan or the United States. If so, we expect to see features of a positive-sum grand strategy from China, which will then produce a robust regional order supported by even more complex and multilayered regional institutions.

About the Authors

Saori Katada and Alex Lin are Associate Professor and PhD candidate, respectively, at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. They can be contacted at and, respectively.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

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4 thoughts on “Regional Order Reconfigured: China, Japan, and the United States in the Evolving Asia Pacific

  1. The US-Japan alliance is an obsolete Cold War strategy, and the American pivot to Asia is a failure. The global power shift towards Asia, caused by the rapid economic development of Asian countries, have created challenges in the region to American primacy and the American dominated international order. The main element of the challenge is represented by the economic, political and military rise of China. Militarily, the challenge posed by the PRC is represented
    by its capacity to erode the US’ “Command of the Commons” – that is, American ability to control and use the commons of air, sea, space and cyber-space militarily, and to credibly threaten to deny their use to other states.

    As a consequence of the development of the Chinese military capabilities, instead of locking China within the First Island Chain, the US forces are finding themselves losing the capacity to project power in this increasingly relevant area. Economically and strategically, the seas within the First Island Chain are decisive for the control of the maritime lines of communication connecting China with the Pacific region, but also with the Middle East and Europe. US is finding it near impossible to chain China any more. There are three main trends of the Chinese modernization program that have contributed to a gloomier assessment on the part of American planners: the growth of China’s ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, the ongoing development of a blue-water Navy and the technological development of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLA).

    According to the recent assessments, the PLA has gained the Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) capabilities necessary to degrade the American ability to operate in airfields near Chinese territory; to hinder forward deployments within the area encompassing the First Island Chain; and to prevent naval surface assets from operating in waters near Chinese shores. Moreover, the PLA is able to disrupt severely the command and control, early warning, or supply capabilities of forward-deployed forces to a degree great enough to force potential combatants to relocate to more distant locations, like the Second Island Chain. As a consequence of these trends, a recent report of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) argued that “US force structure will be compelled to pay an increasingly high – and perhaps prohibitive – price should Washington attempt to conduct traditional types of power-projection operations”

    I do not believe Trump has given up the strategy to contain China. I believe Trump will continue the process of “alliance diversification”, that is, enhancing existing alliances – such as those with Japan, South Korea, and Australia – and opening new diplomatic channels with former adversaries, including Vietnam and Myanmar, and potential allies like India and Indonesia. Even if Japan remains the cornerstone of the US engagement in the Asia Pacific Region, its capacity to dictate terms to the US is diminished. Trump does see the treaty with Japan unfair, which obliged Washington to defend Japan in case of attack, while Tokyo had no such obligation in case of an attack against the US. Japan is no longer able to behave as a “security consumer”, whose mere alignment with the US guaranteed security and stability. In other words, Trump is trying to force Japan to rethink its role and enlarge its duties in the provision of security and deterrence in the area. But given the fact that the US is technically bankrupt – with $20 trillion in national debts and $220 trillion of unfunded debts – Trump wants the historical allies and potential allies to share the bills equally.

    Moreover, given the great improvement of Chinese military technologies, Tokyo can no longer play the role of military and logistic rearguard for the US military complex it used to, its value to the US geopolitical exchequer is considerably diminished. The new Chinese A2AD capabilities increasingly render the main US bases in Japan and Okinawa vulnerable to a possible first strike. Whilst this does not imply that American forces are likely to abandon such bases altogether, it does mean that they will seek to share their power projection hub role with other facilities located outside the First Island Chain. This fundamentally alters the strategic relevance of Japan as supplier of bases. Since Japanese territory is no longer able to provide a safe rearguard for American troops, the US is increasingly asking Japan to provide different contributions to the alliance and to the stability of the region. As a consequence, the Trump administration is increasing the pressure on Japan for a more active military role in the alliance and less unequal burden sharing.

    Asia’s changing security environment, characterized most markedly by China’s growing capacity, is forcing Japan to rethink its role with the US in the region. American like to call Japan the “most trusted ally” in Asia. But Japan has always sought to resist US pressures for an expanded Japanese security posture through the maintenance of constitutional limits and the preservation of autonomy in the military, technological and political realms. Japan hates to behave as “America’s Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier” supplying bases. Especially Okinawa.

  2. Thanks LaMoy for this enlightening insight on Japan’s evolving role within the US’ Asia security environment.

    Yes, China’s rise on the full spectrum of comprehensive geo-political power (economic, industrial, military & social influnce) has forced American power projection to recede further and further away from the Asian mainland. Where before, the US could place all their most valuable and potent (read: offensive) military assets right at the doorsteps of China (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Phillipines, etc.), this is increasingly untenable. Those places are all in range of China’s full A2AD capability.

    What we are beginning to notice now is, those “front-line” US allies are increasingly being viewed as a kind of “early warning” and defensive outpost s. The recent deployment of THAAD in the Korean peninsula comes to mind.

    Recent geo-political developments where China is able to use its growing economic heft to influence and convince Asian states to align their actions in-line with China’s interests, certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed in this region. Adding to this economic influnce, which is very well reported, is their new found military power projection. In one stroke, China secured almost entirely the South China Sea with first the massive reclaimation projects, and then the fortification of those islands.

    The three biggest of those, Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Islands are full-fledge naval and air bases from which China could project unrivalled air and sea military coverage. I don’t think the usual Western media that easily dismiss those island fortifications as sitting ducks truly understand its implications. Those islands are not functioning on their own. They are close enough to each other and compliment each other with their own roles. So, if anyone are trying to nuetralised them, it has to be attacked at the same time. There are comparisons made, superimposing those islands, on say, Pearl Harbor on Hawaii, and they are the same size! I think, if I’m not wrong, Mischief Island itself, with its perimeter, is the same size as Washington DC.

    Now, coming back to Japan, it has definitely been trying to break out of its WW2 imposed restrictions, but this has been met with oppositions with (a majority?) of its citizens. And this is using valuable national resourses that is vitally needed to prop up its economy. Future shrinking of the Japanese demographics is also not helping at all.

    Also, a militirized Japan will not nessasarily be welcomed by the rest of Asia, especially by the Koreans, North or South. After all, Korea had never been colonised by China the way it was colonised by the Japanese. In such a situation, it is not unimaginable to see South Korea moving closer into China’s orbit to counter a more militaristic Japan.

    And if Japan is to somehow regained its full status pre-WW2 defeat and become a strong, independant nation. Will it still take orders from America?

    The bottom line as I see it is this, the world is becoming increasingly intertwined, and much much more competitive. The western nations lavish lifestyles are becoming increasingly unsustainable. Right now, the Asians, especially China is playing such a hard game, in their economic and national development, with their honest sweat and tears, that the West’s so-called “A” game ain’t gonna cut it anymore.

    The West has to work for it, in order to maintain their primacy.

    • “I don’t think the usual Western media that easily dismiss those island fortifications as sitting ducks truly understand its implications.”

      Shonen, I believe they do understand. It’s called “whistling in the dark”. The whole dispute in the South China Sea is about the US’ “Command of the Commons”, nothing whatsoever to do with “Freedom of Navigation” as claimed.

    • ” nothing whatsoever to do with “Freedom of Navigation” as claimed.”

      Agreed 100%. The biggest loser from a loss of “Freedom of Navigation” in the South China Sea” is China.

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