East Asia's changing landscape

East Asia's changing landscape
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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.

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