Experts usually delineate two main regions in East Asia: Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia. Northeast Asian countries are generally more developed politically and economically, but they are very dependent on different kinds of resources from outside their territories. This feature exacerbates other factors in their bilateral relationships which often lead to tension. Southeast Asian countries are rich in resources, but the region’s great political and cultural complexity and diversity make it difficult for it to assert itself in international relations. Southeast Asian countries themselves are unable to build a regional security system without taking into consideration the political interests and positions of global actors and neighboring countries in Northeast Asia.
The first attempt to build a common East Asian regional security system without division into Northeast and Southeast Asia was undertaken in the 13th century by Mongolian khans. The Mongols managed to take control of all of Northeast Asia except for Japan, and also invaded other mainland and island Southeast Asian kingdoms. In the early 20th century, Japan, the only Asian power that managed to preserve real independence during the era of European colonization, sought to dominate and expand its own sphere of influence, the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (大東亜共栄圏), under the slogan “Asia for the Asians!” At its high point, Japan controlled the eastern sections of mainland Asia, and also the main parts of mainland and island Southeast Asia. Japan’s defeat in World War II ended its attempts to consolidate this regional security architecture.
Right after the end of the World War II, the United States started to build a regional security system in East Asia aimed at containing the Sino-Soviet bloc, establishing both bilateral alliances and multi-lateral alliances such as the Southeast Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO). The United States also considered leading the formation of a Northeast Asian Treaty Organization. It is important to note that an implicit anti-Soviet security structure made up of the United States, China, and Japan emerged, which supplemented the U.S. alliance structure. Although the Cold War ended 20 years ago, the contemporary security architecture in East Asia in general has not changed very much (with the exception of the U.S.-China-Japan axis). What are its main contemporary parameters?
The East Asian Arc of Instability
The most correct indicator of the established geopolitical balance of forces in the region is the East Asian Arc of Instability. This is a predominant geopolitical reality and is the basis of the regional security architecture. The East Asian Arc of Instability is a difficult system of blocks and counterbalances which goes through divided countries and disputed territories. Beginning in the Cold War, the East Asian Arc of Instability has gone from the so-called “Northern territories” (i.e. Kuril Islands), through the divided Korean peninsula and divided China (People’s Republic of China and Republic of China or Taiwan), and down to divided Vietnam (North Vietnam and South Vietnam). These are only the most important flash points; “small” disputes along this arc include Dokdo/Takeshima, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the Spratly and Paracel islands as well as numerous other small islands, reefs, and shoals in the South China Sea. During the Cold War only one considerable move took place in the Southern part of the East Asian Arc of Instability: in 1975 Vietnam was unified, but only on the continent. Before the end of the war, when the North Vietnamese army was stuck in South Vietnam, South Vietnamese troops were evacuated from the Paracel Islands by the U.S. Navy and these islands were almost immediately taken over by China in 1974. These events had far reaching consequences.
All the intricate curves of this Arc of Instability are stipulated by the geopolitical interests and strategies of main actors of global and regional policy as well as the established balance of power. Any change in this Arc of Instability, even if it seems insignificant at first sight, could be considered by competitors as a challenge or even as casus belli. From the southeast, the Arc of Instability is buttressed by U.S. military bases situated on the territory of U.S. security partners in East Asia. This system is based on bilateral security agreements. Because of the significant security dependence of Asian partners on the United States, and the virtually immeasurable military and economic dominance that it enjoys, Washington has a certain freedom of action. From the northwest, Russia and China are hanging over this East Asian Arc of Instability. They coordinate their activities mainly in Central Asia in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is the mechanism that in form looks most like a regional security system. But its impact is minimized because of its limited membership and limited functions, and because the parties concerned know that it reduces their freedom of action. The disputes along the East Asian Arc of Instability are so complex that actors require more maneuverability. At the same time that Russia and China coordinate in Central Asia, therefore, they pursue foreign policy in East Asia without visible cooperation.
The East Asian Arc of Instability reflects historically established fault lines, which are sources of friction in regional relations. When geopolitical players try to move these lines, it is usually a cause for immediate reaction by competitors of informational, diplomatic, economic, financial, and/or military character. These territorial disputes have huge destructive potential and can turn the whole region into an abyss of long range destabilization. Therefore the East Asian Arc of Instability plays a very important role in the contemporary Great Game in East Asia.
Among these potential hot-spots, Russia has been directly involved in a territorial dispute with Japan, has common land borders with China and North Korea (with whom border disputes have been settled), and have maintained traditionally close relations with China, both Korean states and Vietnam.
Russia rejects Japan’s demands to “return” the Kuril Islands; Japan’s claims to the islands are not accepted by any responsible political force in Russia. The Soviet Union established control over the Kuril Islands in 1945 according to Yalta agreements which were signed by Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Control over the Kuril Islands was the condition of Soviet participation in the war against Japan in 1945, but as soon as Japan’s Kwantung Army was defeated in Manchuria the United States unilaterally revised its position on this issue.
Dmitry Medvedev’s recent visits to the Kuril Islands, in 2012 and 2010, were described in Tokyo as “inexcusable rudeness.” However, Japan has territorial disputes with all its neighboring countries, legacies perhaps of its colonial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its defeat in World War II. These territorial claims, which would seem to have been settled by wars and treaties, create fundamental conditions for long-term instability in the region. Japan, as the regional actor most dependent on energy and overseas resource supplies, will be the party most affected by this instability.
Regardless of 20th century wars, Russians generally consider Japan to be a great culture and there is great interest in it. Russia was a major donor to recovery efforts after the March 11, 2011 Tohoku disaster. Instead of confrontation, therefore, Moscow proposes to concentrate on mutually advantageous economic cooperation, to develop closer trade and humanitarian ties between Russia and Japan, including in the energy field. The most suitable solution of this problem is the common use of the Kuril Islands under Russian sovereignty. Moscow believes that reconciliation will be of great benefit to Japan and will also make a considerable contribution to peace and security in the region.
Since the resolution of its border disputes with China around the turn of the 21st century, Moscow perceives that the general situation along the East Asian Arc of Instability can be described as “stably unstable.” It seems that the established status quo is more or less acceptable to interested parties and that in the foreseeable future we will see continued exchange of diplomatic notes between Russia and Japan, saber rattling on the Korean peninsula, and latent tensions in the Taiwan Strait. These are the remaining major flash points that were left unresolved after the Cold War. The more “minor” points of contention, in the East and South China Seas, deserve more attention as they represent an emerging challenge to the established status quo in the East Asian Arc of Instability. Antagonistic contradictions between first and second world powers close off potential avenues for compromise. Hidden and open struggles for a new regional order are inevitable.
The post-Cold War order that exists today is based on U.S. economic and military dominance and containment of the Soviet Union. East Asian countries now play a much stronger role in world affairs than during the Cold War and the Soviet Union has ceased to exist, but the East Asian security architecture is almost the same. During the last 30 years China has shown especially remarkable growth and is ready to build new regional order, one that corresponds more closely to the new state of affairs.
It is obvious that the strengthening of China’s economic and political role and the tendency of the United States to preserve its primacy in the region have created strong opposing pressures which now seriously deform the region. This intensification from both outside (the United States) and inside the region (China) is helping to activate previously “sleeping” territorial claims and regional conflicts.
China’s policy in the region is the most predictable and the recent warning in its official People’s Daily newspaper to American officials to “shut up” about territorial disputes in the South China Sea was forecasted by Samuel Huntington in long-ago 1996, in his book The Clash of Civilizations, where he described the initial phase of the conflict over South China Sea: “The Chinese warn the United States to stay out.” Contemporary China-U.S. relations and the role of Vietnam factor in the Far East are developing in a way that is eerily similar, in some respects, to the model imagined by the famous American scholar.
Recently military experts in China have worked out a concept of two “island chains” along China’s maritime perimeter. Areas within the First Island Chain include Taiwan, the Tonkin Gulf, South China Sea and the Ryukyu Islands; areas within the Second Island Chain include Japan and the Philippines and outward to Guam. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that China’s navy “appears primarily focused on contingencies within” these two island chains. It is interesting to note that China’s strategic calculations in this regard are to some extent similar to those behind Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
From Beijing’s point of view, which stipulates that a regional power should have its own zone of dominance and secure vital sea lanes for hydrocarbon resources, such a strategic plan seems quite logical for long term security and supply of resources. The troubled situation in the Middle East motivates China to act more vigorously day by day. If China managed to establish control over hydrocarbon and mineral recourses in the South China Sea, its dependence on oil and gas imports would decrease and its influence on both smaller countries in Southeast Asia and the larger countries in Northeast Asia would increase. It seems that this China-centered transformation of the Cold War security structure is not acceptable to many countries in the region: some of them have tried to balance against Beijing by relying more on Washington.
For example, Vietnam traditionally claims sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In Vietnam, China’s concept of the “first island chain” is colloquially called the “bull’s tongue line” (đường lưỡi bò), and political cartoons depicting the removal of China’s “bull’s tongue” in the South China Sea are very popular. China’s rise and inevitable following expansion is viewed by Vietnamese as another chapter in a two thousand years history in which Chinese expansion proved to be threatening to Vietnam’s sovereignty. Chinese expansion is considered in terms of traditional Chinese culture as a “cán shí” or “silkworm eating” policy, which could be translated literarily as “to eat the land of neighboring countries as silkworms eat mulberry leaves.” This perception is manifested today in Vietnamese objection to Chinese claims in the South China Sea, and the objections are not based only on pure nationalism. Control over oilfields on the continental shelf along Vietnam’s coast are also very important to Hanoi’s economic development plans, and is at odds with China’s plans for strategic expansion in the South China Sea. Such a situation activates in Hanoi a stratagem of “befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbor.” In this context the United States is viewed in Hanoi as a natural alliance partner. At the same time, however, in order to maintain space to maneuver Hanoi has recently proposed to Moscow very favorable conditions for a return to the Cam Ranh Bay naval base. Each of these proposals deserves careful scrutiny.
At first glance, Russia would seem to be far removed from this dispute and should only “watch the fires burning across the river.” But in fact, Moscow regards China and Vietnam as its closest strategic partners in East Asia, and has important interests in gas and oil exploration and output in East Asia in general and in the South China Sea in particular, so a possible conflict between China and Vietnam in this area is considered a worst-case scenario. Furthermore, in the 20th century Russia spent a lot of time and resources helping to restore the real sovereignty of these countries. Because it is not directly involved in the current territorial disputes, Russia has the most space to maneuver in this environment.
During the last three years, Beijing has created very favorable conditions for the United States to strengthen its role in Southeast Asia. The more Beijing has pressed Vietnam and others, the more influence Washington has obtained along China’s southern “underbelly.” Washington recognized this long-awaited opportunity to draw these small countries―which are offended by big power and concerned about China’s rise―closer to it and has skillfully taken advantage. But Hanoi cannot fully rely on the United States, because Washington provides at least rhetorical support to dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, and anti-communists inside and outside Vietnam. Hanoi considers these groups to be hostile forces and even as terrorists, involved in anti-state activities.
Despite the stakes for Russia, so far Moscow is not overly concerned about China’s increasing activities in the South China Sea. Instability here does not directly affect Russia’s interest, and Russia has more pressing security issues in other areas that demand its attention. Also, despite occasionally heated rhetoric, for now the general security situation is under control and Russia believes that all related parties are wise enough to avoid confrontation.
Moscow is much more concerned by Washington’s strategy to strengthen its military presence and expand anti-ballistic missile systems defenses in the Asia-Pacific. Leading Russian (and Chinese) policy-makers and experts do not believe that the American-led missile defense system in East Asia targets Pyongyang. These plans are considered mainly as a form of power projection vis-à-vis Moscow and Beijing.
The general security situation in East Asia has the potential to become more and destabilized. It is difficult to ignore that a lot of potential flash points in East, South and Central Asia are situated around China. Each of these flashpoints has huge destructive potential. It could be particularly dangerous if outside actors provide direct or indirect support to one side or another in these flashpoints, and keep them simmering. These flashpoints could be considered as a “ring of instability” around China, which directly or indirectly can also affect Russia. In this context it is important to note that the Russian-China border is the most peaceful part of China’s perimeter.
According to official declarations of high-ranking Russian officials, current relations between Moscow and Beijing are at an unprecedented high level. The two capitals coordinate their activities in Central Asia as well as in the Middle East, mainly within the frameworks of the United Nations and the SCO. Russia and China believe that their cooperation in the security field is a very important contribution to peace and stability in Eurasia.
So far Russia, which because of its physical size is the only Euro-Asian-Pacific country, has not yet fully utilized the benefits of its favorable geographical disposition. It is well known that Russia is one of the world’s biggest gas and oil exporters. East Asia has been a net hydrocarbon consumer for many years and on the whole is dependent on energy resources from the rather unstable Middle East; these resources must also travel through the critical chokepoint at the Strait of Malacca (not to mention the Strait of Hormuz). These fundamental features define a major opportunity for Russia and East Asian countries to collaborate in pursuit of mutual interests. Moscow proposes to its partners to develop such large scale trans-regional transport projects as a sea route in the Russian Arctic, a trans-Korean railway and pipeline, and a tunnel under the Bering Strait.
In one of his first acts after his reelection as president on May 7, 2012, Vladimir Putin signed “Executive Order on Measures to Implement the Russian Federation Foreign Policy.” According to this document: “Instructions pertaining to the Asia-Pacific region, in particular, concern broader participation in regional integration processes with the aim of promoting accelerated socio-economic development of Eastern Siberia and the Far East; deepening equal, trust-based partnership and strategic cooperation with China, strategic partnership with India and Vietnam, and developing mutually beneficial cooperation with Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and other key nations in the Asia-Pacific region.”
In this context, one of the main goals of Russia’s foreign policy in East Asia is to preserve its own national interests, to develop large-scale cooperation with main global and regional actors and to avoid confrontation and an arms race.
Russia’s main task in East Asia is to find possibilities for integration into the existing system of economic growth in East Asia. Russia’s traditional fields of action are: energy policy, military-technical cooperation, and ability to alter the balance of forces in the region. The last factor is not yet fully used in Moscow’s foreign policy. Russia has a real opportunity to change the balance of forces in the region by delivering advanced weapon system to its partners, but this tool should be used very cautiously in order to preserve peace and stability.
 Huntington S. The Clash of Civilizations. New York. Simon and Schuster, 1996. P. 312-313.
 U.S. Department of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, 2011,” p. 23.
 In Vietnamese, “tằm thực”; in Chinese, “蚕食.”
 In Vietnamese, “viễn giao cận công”; in Chinese, “遠交近攻.”
 In Vietnamese, ”cách ngạn quan hỏa”; in Chinese, “隔岸觀火.”
There finally is an administration beginning to take shape around [Trump], which there was not before — Tillerson and Mattis in particular. During the transition, no one had the nerve or expertise to contradict him.