By Zheng Yongnian

East Asia's changing landscape

Beyond China's rise and America's decline, the East Asian region is being shaped by Japan's normalisation and the rise of Russia


The geopolitical landscape in East Asia, including North-east and South-east Asia, is undergoing a radical change. This was reflected in the heated exchanges between China on the one hand, and the United States and Japan on the other, during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The change has been attributed to one single factor, namely, the rise of China. But while it is true that China's assertive foreign policy is perceived to have increasingly threatened its East Asian neighbours, the story is not that simple. There are at least four major factors driving the geopolitical changes in East Asia.

Besides the rise of China, the others are the relative decline of the US, Japan's "normalisation", and Russia's return. These inter- related factors reinforce one another. The result is a transformation of East Asian geopolitics.

American decline

OF THE four factors, the most important is the decline of US power, which has been much faster than many expected. The US was strong in all aspects after World War II, but now it only remains strong in military force. Its economy has not improved much after the 2008 financial crisis. Its democracy and capitalist-driven system are also becoming less attractive, as can be seen from the growing chorus of criticisms on US political gridlock and debates on how unfettered capitalism leads to rising inequality. More importantly, there has been a decline in power and influence of its political leadership. There is certainly a perception that the US is more reluctant to be involved in overseas military campaigns. And in the long run, US military strength - the very area that the country still enjoys - will decline without the support of a robust economy.

There is an inherent contradiction in the decline of US power and its ever stronger desire to maintain hegemony in Asia. The US role as "world policeman" in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War can no longer be sustained. Today, it can only maintain the role of "world peacekeeper" by strengthening its alliances.

After the Cold War, the US continued to base its foreign policy on alliance politics, which align allies using a common third party enemy, imagined or real. The US missed the chance to come up with a better strategy of managing relations with countries like Russia and China.

This had several consequences. First, China has become the most convenient enemy for US allies. Even though the US and China have no direct geopolitical conflict, the American policy that can be summed up as the "enemy of my ally is my enemy" makes China the enemy of the US.

Second, the US is burdened by its alliances. To a great degree, it has been held hostage by its promise to defend its allies.

Third, the US has become prone to making empty promises. By this I mean it is talking much more than it can actually do. Undeniably, this affects Washington's credibility, which in turn accelerates the decline of the US.

Japan's 'normalisation'

UNDER the terms of the US-Japan alliance, Japan is not a full sovereign state in that it does not have autonomy over its own defence, but depends on the US. Japan's ultimate goal, however, is to become an independent, full sovereign state. In the process of achieving this, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama sought a more equal relationship with the US. But while Mr Hatoyama's East Asian Community approach aimed to reduce alliance on the US by building relations with China, Mr Abe's government has focused on building up Japan's own capabilities. Under Mr Abe, Japan is seeking to pursue its own geopolitical interests which in the long run are in conflict not only with those of China but also of the US.

Japan's ultimate goal is the "normalisation" of the state which almost certainly involves the revision of its pacifist Constitution to pave the way for the development of a full-fledged military. Once this goal is achieved, it will be extremely difficult to justify the presence of the US military on Japanese soil.

Russia's rise

ANOTHER factor driving geopolitical changes in East Asia is the rise of Russia.

Russia's geopolitical position declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly under president Boris Yeltsin. Now that Russia is growing stronger under President Vladimir Putin, it wants to regain its lost influence.

Recent developments in Ukraine hold great significance in this regard. The ineffective diplomacy and sanctions of the US and the European Union in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea has serious geopolitical implications for small countries. It is certainly a development small states in Asia cannot fail to note.

In pre-modern times, East Asia developed a sino-centric international order. This was best reflected in the tributary system, the traditional Chinese system for managing foreign relations, and the development of the Silk Road.

The former suggested the influx of foreigners to China, while the latter indicated the extent of China's international influence.

In modern times, this order was destroyed as China was repeatedly defeated by the Western powers, and its neighbour Japan. Being weak, China's geopolitical interests were carved up by the West, creating various historical problems which China continues to face to this day. But the geopolitical situation is changing as reforms in China have triggered the growth of its economy and led to a commensurate rise in military power. China is thus ready to claim back some of its lost influence. The interplay of these factors will dominate geopolitics in East Asia in the foreseeable future. All countries will have to adjust their foreign policies according to this changing environment.

The writer is director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.