The Asia-Pacific Region has become a vital epicenter of global economic prosperity and of strategic interest to the international security agenda. Vacillating between aspirations to construct a rule-based Pax Pacifica[i] and brittle security realities, the region displays tendencies of robust economic growth with tense and lagging security configurations. The main regional players such as China, Japan, and South Korea, coupled by the presence of an array of regional organizations (in particular the greater role played by The Association of Southeast Asian Nations – ASEAN) and the United States’ involvement, are all interlinked in a complex web of interests and power games. As well, China’s emergence as a serious regional player with global power aspirations poses daunting challenges for the Asia-Pacific security order.
The Asia-Pacific Security Complex refers to the security relations of interdependence between regional states, by taking into account the confluence of their geopolitical interests alongside the involvement of other great powers such as the United States in the regional security dynamics. The Regional Security Complex in the Asia-Pacific presents an interesting case of regional interaction that goes back to ancient times conflicts, age-old geopolitical rivalries and tensioned historical legacies between the main regional players.
The concept of Regional Security Complex[ii] was coined by Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver so as to allow for the cases of more autonomous regional level security, without the interference of superpower rivalries after the end of the Cold War. Regional security complex theory[iii] (RSCT) differentiates between the systemic level of global power interplays and the subsystem level of interaction between lesser powers with invested security interests in their regional architecture. The theory posits that since security interdependence is usually patterned into regionally based clusters or security complexes[iv], it is worthwhile to analyze the common trends of trust, cooperation and conflict at a regional level.
Mistrust is deeply rooted in the Asia-Pacific region and the regional historical interactions between major players, especially resulting from the militarism, imperialist tendencies, and extreme nationalism of the 19th century. Japan’s colonization practices and military aggression towards both China and Korea in the first half of the 20th have also left a lasting legacy of deep mistrust in the region. The current rise of nationalism and militarism in China, South Korea and Japan is redolent of such unresolved historical frustrations and could bring about new security challenges and potential misconceptions of threats.
The role of ASEAN is particularly interesting in terms of continuously seeking to promote a normative agenda of regional cooperation and good regional citizenship[v] in the Asia-Pacific Region as a countermeasure to China’s growing disruptive influence. Trust plays a central role in the construction of a “pacific” region, with China, South Korea, Japan and the United States being at the core of confidence-building strategies necessary to ensure regional stability. The Asia-Pacific Region is facing considerable obstacles to regional confidence-building and it needs to overcome deeply entrenched mutual suspicions and historical grievances so as to build a regional community of trust.
How certain patterns of amity or enmity, spheres of interest, power disparities, and security cooperation are mitigated at a regional level in the case of the Asia-Pacific Security Complex can better explain the potential for transformation in the Asia-Pacific security constellation. However, the security status-quo spells a disconcerting picture, from territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the fragile Sino-Japanese strategic relations, intensified tensions in the Korean Peninsula and the nuclear threat, the United States’ rekindled “pivot”[vi] in the Asia-Pacific, to the European Union’s involvement as a constructive player in the nuclear dossier.
The main question to be asked is whether China’s rise as a global power and consequent militarization offset is triggering regional re-balancing strategies, engendering fears of potential regional conflicts and inciting worries of a future, more authoritarian-oriented Asian political configuration.
There is a widespread concern as regards China’s ascent as a global player, in addition to its economic power and its increasingly influential voice in the international affairs. Especially worrying are the ways in which China’s leadership will utilize its new-found power for worldwide influence, deal with the civil war legacy of Taiwan’s political division, upgrade its defense capabilities and maritime security, and redraw land and sea borderlines in the detriment of either the likes of Japan or the Philippines.
China’s revisionist tactic in the South China Sea is indicative of the country’s regional hegemonic tendencies and, domestically, it is a clear case of nation-building strategy. The five small and uninhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean, named the Senkaku Islands by the Japanese and the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese[vii], are the main bone of contention in the current Sino-Japanese tense relations. Controlled by Japan, who is backed by international law in its claim, the Islands have become a matter of national pride[viii] and historical justice to China, touching upon sensitive nerves in Chinese culture[ix], such as the Japanese occupation of China from 1937 to 1945. The potential destabilizing effect of an open military conflict over the Islands’ contested sovereignty is significant for the future security of the entire region, with fears that Japan and its US ally would eventually respond with force to China’s revisionist penchants.
As well, China’s military buildup and defense capabilities modernization could be seen as a natural aftereffect of China’s economic growth and rise as a global contender. It is a clear sign that the dragon is growing teeth[x] and China demands to be taken seriously on the global arena, especially by the United States. Taiwan’s potential secession is one of the main reasons for China’s military upgrade, China’s strategy targeting the deterrence and delay of an American attempt to intervene into the Taiwan Strait. As well, China’s military development can be also attributed to the Chinese long-standing suspicions that Japan is moving away from its postwar pacifist position, through the revision of its constitution, so as to construct a full-fledged military force.
With almost all of the existing security problems in the region being predominantly maritime[xi], the Chinese military-capabilities have been extensively directed towards maritime security and building a stronger naval muscle. China’s aim has been to redirect the operations of the United States and its allies the furthest possible from its territorial waters. China’s strategy is to establish a keep-out zone around China’s maritime periphery[xii] by developing both a missile-centric, anti-access arsenal and power projection capabilities.
Conversely, Japan’s recent re-militarization[xiii] and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish foreign and security policy and expressed militaristic views can be attributed to the same feelings of mistrust and perceptions of envy and anxiety concerning China’s rise as a global power. Japan has been constitutionally constrained to use its naval forces solely for the purpose of defense operations, but at the same time it possesses cutting-edge defense technologies and it is developing additional naval capabilities. For Japan, it is paramount to surpass the post-World War II “individual self-defense force” [xiv] and move towards regional and global power projection as a normal military power.
Nevertheless, the resurgence of Japanese militarism or any type of defense build-up should be faced with skepticism and a certain level of concern. This could be an instance of a perpetuating security dilemma, with the regional actors being involved in a vicious circle of reciprocal fears that may spill-over into an arms race[xv] scenario in the Asia-Pacific. Ultimately, there is a battle of historical and cultural narrative being fought between China and Japan, and the winner will be the power who sells the better story both domestically and internationally. There still remains the fact that Japan has never truly owned up to its history of aggression and war atrocities the way Germany did after World War II.
On the American Foreign Policy front or the United States’ so-called “pivot to Asia”[xvi] strategy, China’s bullying inclinations concerning Taiwan or other regional neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines, coupled by the escalating Tokyo-Beijing enmity, have not remained unnoticed. On the contrary, the recent United States foreign policy rhetoric[xvii] and President Obama’s reassurances targeting Asia-Pacific allies have been paying greater lip-service to the security balance in the region. The pivot focuses on strengthening the US alliances in the region and broadening the US defense engagement[xviii] by increasing its naval presence and operability from Japan. It is a question of power sharing and power competition[xix] between the US and China, with prominent realist international scholars such as John Mearsheimer even going as far as predicting a future US-China standoff reminiscent of the Cold-War and a Soviet-NATO general war.
Added to the above security concerns, the continued tensions and mistrust in the Korean Peninsula have been endemic and they remain a defining obstacle in the Asia-Pacific Security Complex. It is not surprising that South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye has articulated during her election the concept of trustpolitik as a corner-stone vision for North-South diplomatic relations[xx] and a new framework for South Korea’s foreign policy. While conceptually attractive, building trust between Seoul and Pyongyang is not an easy feat, especially in the face of unrelenting provocations from the North and its advancements in weapons of mass destruction capabilities. But as the Korean proverb goes “one-handed applause is impossible”[xxi], so does the vision of a concerted and trust-building foreign policy effort in the case of the Korean Peninsula.
The European Union has been also stepping up its involvement in the Asia-Pacific Region and increasing its soft power profile in terms of promoting its values and interest in an increasingly important part of the world; it has clearly indicated interest and readiness to take on a more substantial role as regards priority areas of development, trade, and defense capabilities and it has shown interest in the overarching maritime and territorial security crises, particularly in the South China Sea. The EU has also supported the international efforts concerning nuclear proliferation in the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, especially through the Six Party Talks process[xxii] set up in 2003.
The region’s future prospects are up for debate, with scholars such as Stephen Walt, the esteemed professor at Harvard JFK School of Government and the proponent of the balance of threat theory proposing interesting future scenarios[xxiii] for the Asia-Pacific Security Complex. According to Walt, regional states will attempt to seek allies so as to balance against external threats, such as the Chinese power aspirations and its military buildup, but there are some cases in which certain weak states will choose to “bandwagon” with the rising power rather than oppose it. Whether this will be the case of the Asia-Pacific Region and its power configurations still remains to be seen, with regional actors and the United States having to face serious decisions in the years to come.
The patterns of enmity and amity, rivalry or alliance between China and Japan, China and the United States, South Korea and North Korea, will require increased diplomatic efforts so as to manage the fluctuating nature of the security dynamics in the region. The new security architecture in the Asia-Pacific Region is being rewritten and it requires innovative solutions that consider the distinctiveness and diversity of the Asian way of settling disputes. All in all, the Asia-Pacific Region is experiencing strategic shifts in an age of global uncertainty, with China continuing to grow in confidence as a global and powerful player in international affairs.
[i] David Martin Jones, Michael Lawrence Rowan Smith, Nicholas Khoo, Asian Security and the Rise of China: International Relations in an Age of Volatility, Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013.
[ii] Barry Buzan & Ole Wæver, Regions and Powers. The Structure of International Security, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
[iii] Buzan & Wæver, 4.
[v] Jones, Smith & Khoo, 7.
[xx] Global Asia. A journal of the East Asia Foundation, Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 2013.
[xxi] Ibidem, 12.
[xxii] EUSK COOP – Research Papers, Expansion of EU-South Korea relations and policy advice in the fields of crisis management and stability (security, defense and nuclear), International Security Information Service, Europe (ISIS Europe), February 2013, available online: