An American Bull in a China Shop: Can the United States Create a Winning Team in South-East Asia?

The United States under President Obama has taken a much greater interest in China’s rise, both economically and militarily, than previous administrations, which also involves increasing its influence in the region as a whole.[1] Unilaterally this can be observed by the United States’ progressively more frequent naval drills and patrols in the region and a much harder stance on China’s alleged cyber attacks on American servers. Though these actions may convey the message that the United States is willing to take a more active role in the region, the United States’ seemingly more effective long-term policy has been an attempt to form a loose coalition to curb China’s rise in the name of regional security, sovereignty, and economic stability. The two strongest American allies in the region are inarguably Japan and South Korea, both of which participate in drills alongside American soldiers and play host to dozens of American military bases.[2] However, if one takes the American connection out of the equation, the nations of Japan and South Korea are not actually strongly committed to one another. The new American grand strategy to unify South-East Asian allies together against a rising China hopes to change this.

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State, © 2012, some rights reserved.

The greatest Chinese advancement in the region is the so called ‘String of Pearls’ and the economic initiative of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ strategy. The String of Pearls is an effort to set up a chain of island naval bases throughout the South China Sea to empower China and give it much greater influence over regional trade.[3] This attempt also includes China’s desire to annex islands under contentious claims in order to build naval bases.[4] Naturally, this occurrence has certainly shown a disregard for sovereignty and international law, despite China’s usual hardline stance on a nation’s right to strict Westphalian sovereignty (in order to avoid certain investigations into human rights investigations). These acts have understandably made states within the region feel a bit uneasy, threatened of where China will draw the line and whether they can protect their states with dozens of Chinese naval bases scattered just off their coastlines. Japan and South Korea both certainly have these fears (especially with a China-supported North Korea), and through this the United States is trying to overcome long standing animosity between the two in order to create a working partnership that keeps China in check. This feud between the two nations can be attributed to actions committed by the Japanese during the Second World War, as Japan essentially colonized Korea and was known to use Korean women as ‘comfort girls’ for Japanese troops on the frontlines, disregarding the rules of consent and the laws of war.[5] To make the situation even more confusing, China also holds animosity towards Japan for the same reason. The United States has therefore been trying to prove to these nations that Chinese influence can only be successfully abated if a sort of loose coalition is formed, which would ensure open communications between the two states (i.e. a direct envoy between Japan and South Korea). Indeed, this is not only an issue of security for states, but also a largely economic problem. The Chinese grand strategy puts them in the driver’s seat for policing and possibly regulating and directing trade in one of the regions with the most commercial shipping. For the Maritime Silk Road strategy has meant huge investments by the Chinese in regional ports and infrastructure.[6] For the Strait of Malacca (where the so called String of Pearls and Maritime Silk Road are meant to conclude) is a gateway for 40 per cent of global trade, carrying goods to almost every continent.[7] Even more pertinently, the crude oil coming from the Middle East through the Strait accounts for 90 per cent of Japan’s oil imports[8] and a large portion of South Korea’s as well. The fact the Strait is within China’s planned ‘expansion’ and also is a crucial chokepoint could certainly threaten not only imports to these nations and more, but also exports headed for international markets including the United States. So the question remains: can the United States pull these two nations together with a common goal?

This seems like a simple example of regional Balance of Power, for Japan and South Korea both certainly have noticed that China has become the biggest player in South-East Asia. South Korea will certainly not ‘Bandwagon’ and ride on China’s coattails due to China’s support for North Korea and South Korea’s strong relationship with America. This also remains true for Japan. This lack of reason to bandwagon with China invokes the need for another solution that will protect these nations’ interests, and that solution is now being presented by the United States. There certainly have not been any distinct details laid out, but the idea for a special envoy, a creation of pseudo intelligence sharing system,[9] and the past use of joint military drills between the three states[10] are a step in the right direction.

The issue here is time, for if the United States cannot guarantee the cooperation between these two nations prior to China’s cementing of their strategy, then it will be impossible to be fully effective. Furthermore, rather than a defensive maneuver deployed a tad late, it will leave a mal precedent in its wake. If successful, the United States can show Japan and South Korea the symbiotic benefits of this relationship and China will be given the clear message that their strategy will be challenged, and ideally their ‘String of Pearls’ will be countered by naval patrols and drills, and any attempts to create a completely Chinese controlled trading region will be met with a United States backed regional alliance. Sadly, if successful the side effects will be greater tension and will mark yet another spar in China’s attempts to eventually supersede American hegemony.








[8] Ibid.



Leave a Reply