East Asia is a region in transition, so everyone is saying. To what, however, no one is sure.
The old order in East Asia is organized around American military and economic dominance, anchored in the U.S.-Japan alliance. For fifty years that U.S. dominance has provided stability, security and open markets as Japan, South Korea and other Asian countries developed, democratized and joined the modern world. The worry today is that the new order in Asia will not be orderly at all, but will instead be marked by a return to unstable great-power rivalry as China, the United States and Japan compete for security and influence. In the worst case, East Asia will come to look like something like Europe in the 1870s, as British hegemony gave way to power transitions, security dilemmas, military competition and a struggle for regional mastery.
This is not a future that the United States and its allies should welcome. The challenge is to seize this moment of transition to nudge the region in a different direction—toward something like Europe of the late 1940s, a moment when war-weary states made monumental decisions to build a regional order around multilateral frameworks of cooperation and mutual economic and security obligations. In East Asia today, new grand bargains and regional institutions are similarly needed if the rapid shifts in power and heightened nationalism are to be channeled in peaceful directions.
Sources of Change
The most potent drivers of change in East Asia are the rise of China and the “normalization” of Japan. The rapid growth of China and the spread of its influence across the region is one of the great dramas of the 21st century. So, too, is Japan’s search for a mature sense of national identity and statehood—and for the traditional rights of sovereignty and self-defense that come with it. Each of these grand developments alone would jeopardize stable relations in the region, but together they feed on each other and threaten to create vicious circles of antagonism and insecurity.
Other developments in the region are also undermining the old American-led order. The flourishing of democracy and populist politics in South Korea has made it easier for its leaders to question that country’s client status and military dependence on the United States. The growth and integration of the East Asian regional economy have also reduced the centrality of American markets and investment and refocused commercial relations on China. Meanwhile, the rise of India and the return of Russia have brought the wider array of Eurasian great power politics into the now expanded geopolitical “space” of Asia. Finally, America’s own changing global security priorities and alliance thinking, driven by the War on Terror, have created new uncertainties and controversies about the reliability of Washington’s long-term security commitments in the region.
Amid these dramatic changes, the U.S.-Japan alliance remains strong. But increasingly the alliance’s health will depend on the building of a new East Asian order that accommodates a rising China and allows Japan to “normalize” without triggering new spirals of conflict. The trick will be to hold onto the U.S.-Japan alliance and the other U.S. bilateral security pacts while looking for ways to embed them in new multilateral regional arrangements.
Put simply, both China’s rise and Japan’s “normalization” need to proceed in tandem with new commitments by both their governments to strengthen regional institutions that bind them to a common vision of East Asian order. Germany’s experience of reintegration and normalization both after World War II and after re-unification provides a relevant model. That model suggests that the United States must work with East Asian countries to create a regional multilateral security organization around which China, Japan and the United States can make commitments of non-aggression, signal reassurance and restraint, and establish ongoing security dialogues. Just as Europe’s current security order did not spell the end of NATO, so a new East Asian order need not require the end of America’s bilateral security partnerships. Rather, that order should be a multilateral vehicle within which those partnerships, newly credible and durable, are integral parts.
The Logic of Order in East Asia
There is a widespread view that the postwar East Asian system of economics, politics and security is not well organized. The contrast with Europe is striking. Europe engineered a stable postwar peace built around a Franco-German accord and layers of regional institutions—NATO, the EC and then the EU, the CSCE and then the OSCE, the Council of Europe and others. In contrast, East Asia has no region-wide system of cooperative security to mitigate its unresolved historical antagonisms, conflicting economic systems, divided and disputed territories, and rapidly shifting power relations.
This common view is, however, overstated. Partly by accident and partly by design, a relatively stable order has emerged in East Asia over the past half century, one organized around a mixture of “hard” bilateralism and “soft” multilateralism. At its core is the U.S.-Japan alliance and the wider system of bilateral alliances connecting the United States to Korea, Taiwan and other Asian countries. Supplementing this security system are a variety of soft regional dialogues, including APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three and the Asian Summit.
In essence, the postwar order in East Asia has been built according to an American-style hegemonic logic. The United States has exported security and imported goods. It is an order in which the U.S.-Japan alliance, together with the wider “hub and spoke” system of bilateral security ties, provides the hidden support beams for the wider regional structure. It is also an order based on a set of grand but mostly tacit political bargains: The United States provides security, open markets and working political relations with its partners, and in return these countries agree to affiliate with the United States, providing the logistical, economic and diplomatic support it needs to lead the wider system.
From the outset, this bilateral security order has been intertwined with the evolution of regional economic relations. The United States facilitated Japanese economic reconstruction after the war and created markets for Japanese exports. The American security guarantee to its East Asian partners provided a national security rationale for Japan to open its markets. Freer trade helped cement the U.S.-Japan alliance, and in turn the alliance helped settle most economic disputes. The export-oriented development strategies of Japan and the other Asian “tigers” depended on America’s willingness to accept imports and huge trade deficits, which alliance ties made politically tolerable.
Over the decades, this U.S.-led alliance system has been good for both the United States and its partners in at least four respects. First, the “hub and spoke” alliance system provides the political and geographical foundation for the projection of American influence into the region. With forward bases and security commitments across the region, the United States established itself as the leading power in East Asia. Second, the bilateral alliances bind the United States to the region, establishing fixed commitments and mechanisms that increase predictability about the exercise of American power. Third, alliance ties create channels of access to Washington for Japan and other security partners, providing institutionalized “voice opportunities” on global as well as regional issues. Fourth and most importantly, the U.S.-Japan alliance has allowed Japan to remain secure without becoming a traditional military power. The United States has defended Japan as a “civilian power”, enabling it to rebuild and reenter the region without triggering dangerous security dilemmas for its neighbors.
In these four ways, the U.S.-Japan alliance and the wider bilateral U.S. alliance system have been more than defense arrangements—they have also served as a political architecture for the wider region. Through this system, American power has been rendered more predictable while Japan has been able to reassure its neighbors, integrate into the region, and pioneer a civilian pathway to economic growth and political influence. In effect, if Japan was the Germany of East Asia in the postwar era, the United States played the role of France. Just as the Franco-German partnership was the linchpin for the reintegration of Germany into Europe, the U.S.-Japan alliance was the linchpin for Japan’s re-entry into Asia. China’s unspoken support for the U.S.-Japan alliance over the decades reflects the fact that the stabilizing and reassurance functions of the alliance have been widely appreciated throughout Asia.
Even today, as change erodes aspects of this order, this old logic retains most of its virtue. It is hard to envisage a wholly new logic of order for East Asia that could be equally functional for so many actors. More specifically, it is difficult to imagine a workable regional order without these bilateral security underpinnings and the continuing hegemonic presence of the United States. The challenge ahead is to adapt an old and tested logic to accommodate the rise of China and the “normalization” of Japan, and to do so in ways that retain as many of its virtues as possible.
Anchoring a Rising China
During the Cold War era, China operated largely outside its regional frameworks and bargains. But in the last decade, because of its rapid and sustained growth and increasingly activist diplomacy, China is now squarely inside the region—and its power and influence continue to expand.
China is a formidable and potentially troubling specter: 1.3 billion people, nuclear weapons, 9 percent annual economic growth, a robust nationalist spirit, and expanding regional aspirations. As China grows more powerful two things are likely to happen. Beijing will want to use its growing capabilities to reshape the rules and institutions of the regional order to better reflect its interests, and it will increasingly be seen as a security threat to other countries. The result will be growing tension, distrust, security dilemmas and conflict.
Accordingly, the current regional order threatens to unravel. East Asian countries will likely find themselves having to “pick sides.” For example, South Korea might increasingly ask itself whether the United States should remain its security patron or whether its long-term future lies in operating within a Sinocentric regional order. Some countries would gravitate toward China, others toward the United States. The United States might find itself pressed to hold onto its strategic partners and forward-bases in the region. The scenarios are numerous, but they are all stories about the coming crisis of the old order.
The challenge for the United States is not to block China’s entry into the regional order but to help shape its terms, looking for opportunities to strike strategic bargains at various moments among shifting power trajectories and encroaching geopolitical spheres. The big bargain that the United States should strike with China is this: Offer China status and position within the regional order in return for Beijing’s accommodation of Washington’s core strategic interests, which include remaining a dominant security provider within East Asia.
In striking this bargain, the United States would be wise to encourage multilateral institutional arrangements in East Asia that can usefully bind China to the wider region. China has already grasped the utility of this strategy in recent years, and it is now actively seeking to reassure and coopt its neighbors by offering to embed itself in regional institutions such as the ASEAN Plus Three and the Asian Summit. This is, of course, precisely what the United States did in the decades after World War II, building and operating within layers of regional and global economic, political and security institutions. In so doing the United States rendered itself more predictable and approachable, and reduced the incentives other states might have had to resist or to build countervailing coalitions.
Perhaps a closer parallel to a rising China is Germany on the eve of reunification in November 1989. The prospect of a unified and more powerful Germany worried the leaders of France, Britain and Russia. In moving forward with re-unification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl signaled to his neighbors that if they acquiesced in unification, Germany would redouble its commitment to European integration and the Atlantic security community. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher articulated the German view in a January 1990 speech:
We want to place the process of German unification in the context of EC integration, of the CSCE process, the West-East partnership for stability, the construction of the common European house and the creation of a peaceful European order from the Atlantic to the Urals.
The United States must find a way to encourage China to respond in a similarly enlightened way. But to do this, there needs to be a more formal regional security organization into which China can integrate. Such an organization need not be a formal alliance—the countries in the region are not ready for that, and there is anyway no common enemy or problem around which such an alliance could coalesce. What is needed instead is a security organization built around a treaty of non-aggression and mechanisms for periodic consultation.
The United States will want to insist that a new East Asian regional security organization complement rather than supplant its bilateral security alliances. Moreover, the creation of a new East Asian Security Organization—perhaps called EASO for short—that includes China need not be inconsistent with simultaneous efforts to strengthen ties among America’s democratic allies in the region. This is true in two respects. First, because China’s future is so uncertain, the United States will naturally want to hedge its relations with China and nurture its bonds with the democratic states of the region. But China’s current willingness to pursue an engagement strategy in the region and to participate in regional institutions is at least partly triggered by Beijing’s worries that the United States will seek to contain and counterbalance it. If so, the two tracks of American policy would work together—drawing China into a more institutionalized regional order and strengthening the alliance bulwark among democratic East Asian states.
Japan, Lost in Transition
As Japan seeks to become a more “normal” great power, it too increasingly poses a challenge to the old East Asian order. As it happens, the solution to this problem is similar to that posed by the rise of China.
The problem is essentially that Japan has not been able to extinguish the suspicions and grievances that still flicker in China, Korea and elsewhere toward its militarist imperial past. While postwar Germany has put the “history issue” to rest, postwar Japan has not, the result being that Japan, 61 years after it surrendered and began its long, peaceful return to the international community, remains incapable of providing leadership in a region being quickly transformed by the rise of China.
Worse, Japan—with Washington’s encouragement—has now embarked on the long path toward great power “normalization.” Constitutional reform, particularly amending Article 9’s prohibition on the use of force, is at the center of this historic undertaking. In one sense, Japanese normalization is an inevitable process of reclaiming its own identity and sovereign rights and has been an aspiration in Japan for a long time. Japanese debate over Article 9 dates back to at least the 1991 Gulf War, and has been part of the ruling party’s platform since Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took office in April 2001. The debate within establishment circles has been about providing Japan with a legal basis to participate in “collective security” undertakings within the framework of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the United Nations charter. In this narrow sense, there is support in Japan for the country to play a stronger role in areas of UN-sponsored peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention and conflict prevention. In this cautious approach to regaining sovereign rights, the aim has been to find a Japanese third way between constitutional pacifism and becoming a fully militarized, normal great power.
This moderate form of normalization is not primarily a response to growing Japanese nationalism. The Japanese scholar Masaru Tamamoto sees the mainstream debate over Japan’s ability to use force in self-defense as a legitimate expression of state sovereignty, not a response to swelling public nationalism or patriotic emotion. In the January/February 2005 issue of the Far Eastern Economic Review, he wrote:
Today’s dominant political and intellectual voices [in Japan] deem that Japan had ceased to be a state after World War II. The argument is simple: Recovery of statehood means reacquiring the right to use force as an instrument of state policy. In a sense, the rise of such thinking is understandable. After all, Japan is maneuvering between the United States and China, two countries that are extremely sensitive about sovereign statehood, and whose policies are driven by the equation of sovereignty and national security.
Japan’s search for a third way toward normalization also recognizes that a Japanese national identity did in fact emerge after the war—a postwar identity organized around democracy, economic achievement and support for global liberal ideals. Along with Germany, Japan pioneered the notion of a “civilian” great power. It turned a necessity into a virtue and it has attained a national identity of which most Japanese are rightly proud. It is also a national identity consistent with incremental steps toward greater leadership roles within East Asia and under the UN umbrella. Japan funds roughly 20 percent of the UN budget. It has articulated and supported enlightened notions of human security. In these various guises, Japan continues to fashion its unique great power role.
But in the meantime, the stakes over normalization have grown. The North Korean nuclear crisis, the rise of China, and America’s post-9/11 foreign policy have generated new pressures within Japan to move faster and further toward becoming a traditional military-capable great power. The Bush Administration and others in Washington have urged new steps on Tokyo, appealing to Japan to “step up to the plate” and be a more inclusively capable ally. Even before September 11, the United States had been urging Japan to break out of its postwar straightjacket. The influential Armitage Report—issued in October 2000 by a bipartisan American group of Japanese policy specialists and diplomats—called on Japan to become, in effect, America’s Great Britain in Asia. In such a scenario, Japan would be a more normal military power but one still tied tightly to the United States in an alliance with a wider geographic reach. Bush Administration officials have since spoken of the need for Japan to revise its constitution. Japanese diplomats feel this pressure from Washington, particularly when they hear echoes of the Bush Administration’s seeming ambivalence about fixed and formal alliances.
But the British model for Japanese normalization is not the third way envisaged by Japanese moderates. Britain, after all, has nuclear weapons and is constitutionally unfettered in the use of force. It is a model that points to Japan’s reassertion of its traditional military rights and its willingness to deploy forces alongside the United States across the region and around the world. This sort of normalization threatens to open East Asia up to security competition and political instability. A “normal” Japan—were it defined in this far-reaching sense—would make the U.S.-Japan alliance a provocative and controversial institution within the region, not the linchpin of stability it has been. This is not what we should want Japan or the U.S.-Japan alliance to look like in East Asia. Japanese normalization along such lines would antagonize China and Korea, exacerbate and delay the resolution of Japan’s historical issues, and feed nationalist passions on all sides. It would also instantaneously drain the reservoir of goodwill for the United States in Asia.
It is less important for Japan to put itself in a position to field combat troops in far off places than it is to help provide global public goods through aid, trade and development in troubled parts of the world. Japan should be a responsible great power, but it is wrong to equate “responsible” with the ability to use force. Is Japan being more responsible when it alters its constitution so that it can more fully join the Bush Administration’s War on Terror, or when it engages America on its own terms and articulates its own vision of security and international community?
Japan must find a workable formula that allows it to fully regain its sovereign rights, maintain its security relationship with the United States and foster stable relations with China. Turning Japan into the Britain of East Asia is not such a formula. A better model is, again, Germany. Just as a rising China should tie its growing power to commitments to strengthened regional security cooperation, so should Japan tie normalization to commitments to a new regional cooperative security organization.
The United States should encourage the next Japanese prime minister to change tack. As a signal to the region that it wants to put the “history issue” behind it, Japan should take the lead in laying the groundwork for a new regional security organization—one that would include the United States and be consistent with existing bilateral security alliances. This organization might start small, with the initial members composed of the five states that are part of the six-party talks with North Korea. This Northeast Asian grouping could be expanded later as it develops ties and accommodations with other regional groupings, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asian Summit.
In sum, the United States should be trying to build an East Asian regional order that can accommodate both a rising China and a Japan that has a sense of its own statehood and of its own diplomatic efficacy and direction. Germany has been doing this within the context of the EU and NATO. On the other s
ide of the world, the United States and East Asian countries need to invent regional institutional structures to help both China and Japan continue to redefine their political and security identities without blowing the region apart. This won’t happen all by itself. We, together with current and future partners, have to make it happen.