New Geopolitics and Rediscovery of the U.S.-Japan Alliance: Reshaping “Northeast Asia” beyond the Border

Akihiro Iwashita
Akihiro Iwashita Professor - Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University

September 9, 2010

INTRODUCTION – What is Northeast Asia?

To most international relations specialists in Northeast Asia, the U.S. perception of “Northeast Asia” seems confused, lacking in detail, and far removed from the actual facts on the ground. Some tend to confuse Northeast Asia with “East Asia”a region influenced traditionally by China – and ignore Russia’s presence. It is well-known that the concept of Northeast Asia was created at the beginning of the Cold War as an intentionally targeted area for U.S. foreign policy, complementing Southeast Asia. Both regions were part of a strategic game in which democracies fought against communist states or movements. The former served to aid the U.S. containment policy against the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, while the latter articulated the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) against communism in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos as well as China. As time went on, the two artificially created regions took different paths: Southeast Asia became a substantive entity and ASEAN enlarged its role in the region by inviting its former Cold War foes to become members—this despite Southeast Asian countries sharing little in common in terms of religion, language, history, and ethnicity.

In contrast, Northeast Asian nations have rarely found common ground to build upon, even among “democratic allies” like Japan and South Korea. This is particularly true in politics, but also in trade and economics. There are severe challenges between Japan and China, such as historical distrust, regional rivalry, and security instability that must be overcome. South Korea’s ties with China, though relatively better than its relations with Japan, are often tested by historical disputes regarding the national “ancestors” (such as the kingdom of Koguryo, or the Bohai people). But contemporary challenges also abound: North Korea’s Stalinist regime remains a troubling security issue for the region and beyond, while Russia’s presence in Northeast Asia has been uncertain since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The only regional forum to discuss security issues has been the Six-Party Talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament, but that process has broken down, and indeed did not achieve any irreversible accomplishments while it was underway. It could be argued that China-Russia relations, which have developed into a strategic partnership since the mid-1990s, are an exceptional case, but the partnership, often interpreted as a counter-balance against the U.S.-Japan alliance, seems to hinder security cooperation among regional players. In short, though there was a small wave of enthusiasm for multilateral organization in the immediate wake of the Cold War, little progress is seen throughout “Northeast Asia.”

In Washington, the term “East Asia” is used more often than “Northeast Asia.” The concept of “East Asia” in the policy and intellectual circles of the capital is overly Sino-centric and seemingly ignores the presence and influence of Russia and, to some extent, Japan. U.S.-China relations are often assumed or stated to be the basis of “East Asia,” though the U.S.-China-Japan triangle is sometimes discussed. But Russia is resurgent, with abundant energy resources and a strategic relationship with China. Redefinition of the term “Northeast Asia” to automatically include Russia is an urgent task.

Rapid globalization and geopolitical transformation of the world also requires that we reconsider our previous image of “Northeast Asia.” In the post-Cold War period, particularly after “9/11,” the uniqueness of the U.S. has become clearer. The U.S. has a geopolitical advantage over “East Asian” or “Northeast Asian” countries. The direct security of the U.S. homeland is, on one hand, absolutely safe from any occurrence that remains confined within the region (thanks mostly to the end of the Soviet “threat”), and, on the other hand, it remains the only superpower capable of projecting its power across borders and regions to protect its interests not only in “Northeast Asia” but also elsewhere in the world at a moment’s notice.

In turn, China and Russia have seemingly dominated the northeastern half of the Eurasian continent, which includes neighboring Mongolia, Central Asia, and South and West Asia. They have been closely tied with Eurasian conflicts and have rarely distanced themselves from any occurrence in the region. However, in the post-Cold War period, Eurasian relations have changed in a number of significant ways; most importantly, China and Russia have overcome their long and shared history of animus and struggle over their long border. The border region, once a source of conflict, is now a zone of cooperation. With the help of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the cooperative zone is widening beyond the Sino-Russian borderland toward the neighboring regions in Eurasia.

Japan’s geographic positioning looks to be in-between. Looking at a map, Japan appears to be a natural sea power in the Pacific Rim region, but Japan is also historically intertwined with the Eurasian landmass, particularly during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During the Cold War, Japan’s security role was fixed to the U.S.-Japan alliance, to combat the spread of communism in the region. It is true that Japan, until this year the world’s second-largest economy, is expected to take a greater role in or beyond the region following the end of the Cold War. Japan has long struggled to identify its position, partly owing to constitutional limitations on dispatching SDF overseas. But it has begun to take some steps toward increasing its security role; Japan’s controversial dispatch of Self-Defense Forces (SDF) troops to Iraq, its contentious refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, and other activities in Eurasia point to Japan’s greater role in the international arena. Nevertheless, internal political dynamics, historical distrust, and challenges from such Northeast Asian regional neighbors as China, Korea, and Russia make the process of Japan clarifying its role more complicated.