Understanding Security Competition in Asia
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jason Lee

Understanding Security Competition in Asia


Growing geopolitical tensions in East Asia, particularly between China and Japan, have increased concern that the world may be on the verge of a new crisis that could quickly and inadvertently spiral out of control. At the very least, the world looks set for a prolonged period of peacetime security competition between major powers for the first time since the Cold War.

The main driver of this security competition is China’s innovative strategy to revise the regional order in Asia. As a senior Chinese diplomat put it to me, while the United States is rebalancing to Asia, China “is trying to rebalance the status quo.” Beijing is avoiding outright aggression but is digging deep into the coercive diplomatic tools available to it to get its way. China’s seizing of the Scarborough Shoal and its declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea are two of the most prominent (and in China’s view successful) examples. If this trend continues, Japan, the United States and others will have to step up their balancing efforts and regional security competition will intensify.

The temptation when analyzing the strategic environment is to draw comparisons to America’s 20th century experiences, whether that is the Cold War or the run-up to World War I. Both are misplaced and cloud unique features of today’s challenge. Geopolitical competition is on the rise but it is occurring in a world that is highly interdependent and globalized. This distinguishes our moment – one of “interdependent competition” – from the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union had little to do with each other economically or culturally. Moreover, America’s allies today are closely tied to China, unlike relations between the Soviet Union and Western Europe.

At first glance, the high levels of interdependence today look similar to the pre-World War I world, but this too is misleading. Interdependence today is fundamentally different in character and scale than a century ago, for both good and ill. Supply chains are vastly more complex. Communication networks are far more sophisticated. Levels of foreign direct investment are far higher.

But do greater levels of interdependence mean that the world is less susceptible to a crisis? The short answer is no because it is wrong to assume that interdependence always serves to reduce geopolitical tensions. Sometimes, it can create vulnerabilities and exacerbate insecurities. Understanding the role of interdependence in a world where security competition between major powers is the norm is vital to properly managing risk and preserving the peace while competing responsibly.

There are good and bad types of interdependence. Trade between large states, most types of foreign direct investment and educational exchange are positive because they are hard for one side to use as a weapon against the other. They also benefit both sides. Supply chains are now so complicated that one state cannot use tariffs as a form of economic warfare without also doing damage to friendly nations and to themselves. Most foreign direct investment is hard to withdraw from where it has been placed. And educational exchange promotes mutual understanding, particularly amongst elites.

But there are also bad types of interdependence. The U.S. and China are closely linked together in the cyberworld but few, if any, would claim that this connection helps stabilize the relationship. In fact, cyber is fast becoming one of America’s greatest concerns and is a source of tension and instability. Allowing Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE to invest in critical Western infrastructure may deepen interdependence but it would also make this situation worse. To take another example, while it is not in China’s interest to dump its holdings of U.S. Treasuries, in a crisis over its core interests it may well consider such a risky step if it believed it would hurt the American economy more than its own. From Beijing’s perspective, Chinese reliance on the U.S. navy for access to energy in the Middle East is an enormous strategic vulnerability. China worries that the United States could cut off its access to scarce resources if the two countries found themselves in a crisis.

In Southeast Asia, China’s smaller neighbors worry that dependence upon the Chinese market will leave them vulnerable to geopolitical coercion over territorial disputes or other areas of difference with Beijing. They have hedged against this risk of interdependence by deepening strategic ties with the U.S. Fortunately, Washington has been a willing partner but if its resolve were to lessen, interdependence could become a tool by which the strong coerce the weak.

Thus, although good types of interdependence will promote positive relations between the major powers, negative types will drive them apart and may create security crises that could quickly get out of control if handled badly. The strategic challenge that the U.S., China, Japan, and others have is how to maintain or even increase the positive type of interdependence while reducing the negative type.

In practice this means that the West and China ought to carefully consider whether it is in their mutual interest to continue deepening interdependence between themselves. A greater degree of autonomy in specific areas – including sovereign debt, cyber, energy, and foreign control of critical infrastructure – may serve the interests of both. For the United States, this means crafting a grand strategy that builds an international order that works best if China is a part of it but also works perfectly adequately if Beijing chooses revisionism over being a responsible stakeholder.

A calibrated approach to interdependence will not lead to protectionism. Trade ties and some forms of investment should, and most likely will, continue to increase. However, it will put interdependence and globalization on a more stable footing, capable of withstanding the security crises that seem likely to arise over the next decade.

Thomas Wright is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. This feature is adapted from a longer article in the current issue of the Washington Quarterly. Follow Wright on Twitter at @thomaswright08.

January 29, 2014 at 06:23

china is the largest country on earth industrializing at the fastest pace on record. why would anyone expect the status quo around china to remain the same when something like that happens? what’s this obsession with the status quo?

January 29, 2014 at 12:40

They fear change.

If Darwin is correct, those who resist change will perish.

January 28, 2014 at 11:19

There are other significant players too including Russia, Saudi Arabia and India too in the region. Now Iran is sending submarines to the Pacific and the Atlantic. Overemphasis on China dangerously neglects these other significant players who can change the status quo in the region in favor of one or the other.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
January 25, 2014 at 19:40

Last autumn some Chinese elites held a clandestine conference and agreed. “We will not wage war with Japan. The Japanese do not have the courage enough to fight us.

That is a very good conclusion. I wonder if that came to the knowledge of Mr. Wright.

It would have been equally a good conclusion that the Japanese would not make war on us and we did not have the courage enough to fight the Japanese.

Abe should summon a top-level conference and decide, “We will not make war on China and the Chinese cannot muster enough courage to fight us,” or “The Chinese are reluctant to start war with us and we do not have the courage enough to make war with them.”

Little Helmsman
January 25, 2014 at 15:41

How many find it highly amusing that Chinese commies are painting a democratic Japan as the bogeyman in Asia ? Lol China is more fitting of the Pinnochio nose!! Commies are liars! They have been lying since the day they were born! All the wars in Asia since WWII had a direct chinamen connection!!! Omg that’s like pot calling the kettle black ! Here is a hint for the chinamen people do not want your toilet bowl commie ideology in their country! Notice all the commie countries in Asia have a border with china? Is that a coincidence? I think not!

A nation of mask
January 26, 2014 at 11:30

Japan is a nation of masks. It masks the commercial whaling as scientific research, and it masks massive toxic nuclear leak from Fukushima as insignificant because it is diluted by the Pacific.

Japan is an unrepented war criminal; there are Japanese war crime sites in all Asian nations, anybody can believe Japan is a democracy? I think not!

January 25, 2014 at 12:42

As the old saying says : EAST AND WEST NEVER MET
The author’s lack of understanding Asia history specially China and Japan would be FATAL MISTAKE.
Like Germany, Chinese has falsely assumed themselves as the Center of Universe for thousands years .They always assume they are superior to all other races (ethnics) on earth.Japan also has had the same malaise but they seemed to be a bit less EXTREME than Chinese.Thus, both of them hardly treat other races equally and these mentalities and mindsets have ingrained in their mind for thousands years that make it very hard for them to compromise voluntarily to equally coexist.
In conclusion, the author’s assumption that the East and West cultures and economics interdependence are AN UNBREAKABLE BINDING is A ABSOLUTE AND FATAL MISTAKE.
Let look back China and Vietnam histories and see how they fought against Western powers from 18th to 20th century.Vietnamese mentality and mindset are exactly the same as of Chinese due to its 1,000 years under Chinese rule.

January 25, 2014 at 11:25

the core of the issue of east china sea is that japan had been changing status quo which laid by instruments concluded the last war.

those instruments are Cairo and Potsdam declarations and Tokyo trials which japanese is claiming it is not just..

but japanese had never thought that those instruments acturely saved japan from been totally destroyed by war efforts and now they want to throw them out by ‘walking out the box and etc.’ and I cannot imagine that if German saying similar thing…

so basicly japan is trying to turn the case around …but I would like to ask them : what about those who died and suffered and lost greatly during their aggression war?

a lot of them are still alive… Please box the Nazi in the box .. otherwise japan will suffer more..

and I would remind japanese to look the history before the 2 atomic bombs… they were dropped right after japanese rejection of the Ultimatum (potsdam declaration).. it was american who lead the effort… and now it is china’s turn…

January 25, 2014 at 12:40

As someone who’s country ‘Suffered’ Japanese aggression, while having Japanese military forces operate within my country, there is one thing I can assure you. In the last war, Japan was our enemy… In the next war, Japan will be our ally.

The reason is simple, today, it is not Japan who is the aggressor, seizing territory and invading other sovereigns. There is a new danger to the pacific and it comes from an eastern mainland state, a state that has already absorbed foreign nations and it trying for more.

January 25, 2014 at 16:43

The US as the conqueror of Japan and the principal occupying power dictated all the terms of Japanese territories including Korea, Taiwan, and Okinawa in the San Francisco Peace Treaty. For China to revise the status quo, it would have to void the state of Peace established on these territories, which were under US occupation. This means China has to start a war, which is precisely what you advocate. Indeed, war is one of the many ways to acquire territory. But I think it can work the opposite way too. It seems that the Chinese wish to use territory dispute as a way to acquire war, to re-experience war and savour victory in a way that China “could have would have”, to achieve a preferred outcome than the one that was already concluded by the San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1952.

January 25, 2014 at 08:37

So globalism will solve all the world’s problems? Hogwash. Increased trade also comes with increased copyright and trademark pirating. Increased student exchanges come with increased espianoge . These forms of ‘good interdependence’ can increase tensions when they are a one-way street. China has clearly demonstrated that they have interest in being a ‘responsible stakeholder’ when they unilaterally declare ownership of other nations’ EEZs, Adizs, and refuse to even meet to work out maritime rules to prevent conflict.

Yin Xianseng
January 25, 2014 at 08:22

JAPAN ultimately don’t have a good outcome.

Yin Xianseng
January 25, 2014 at 08:21

I considerably believe that PRC is capable of maintaining the regional security.Japan is
fascism and ultimately don‘t have a good outcome.

January 28, 2014 at 10:32

Mr Yin Xianseng, I can see that you’re very anti-Japanese. However do not always portray them as bad people because Communist China isn’t any better.

January 25, 2014 at 06:09

Globalism will save the world! Hogwash. ‘Good’ interdependence such as the ones the author uses to discuss US-China such as trade and educational exchanges also result, in this case, in stolen technology, ripped off copyrights and trademarks, and a general one-way street where one side benefits (China) and the other pays (US). All the vague ‘Globalism’ in the world will not deter China from pushing the entire region to the brink of war to achieve their aims.

January 25, 2014 at 04:06

Two aspects the author has missed. One is the emergence of internet warriors post 2000, fuelling nationalism in these nations. Huge number of forum-addicted, English speaking oversea students, and 2nd generation immigrants with unrealistic fantasy of the motherland, incite much hate talk in both English language and bring back biased views to their native countries.

This is also “interdependence” in the 21st century.

The second aspect that the author missed is the China-Hong Kong and the China-Taiwan effect, or so I coin. In both cases, resentment between the two societies grow as a result of “intra-language interaction.” The more frequent he contact, the less Hong Kongers and Taiwanese identify with Beijing’s version of Chinese nationalism.

This has far-reaching impact on how Chinese nationalism spreads across the boarders. Frustrated by the result of “intra-language interaction”, the Chinese is taking it out on the West and Japan. So by seeking to teach the foreign devils (the American Daddy and Japanese Daddy) a lesson, Hong Kong and Taiwan will not dare to be rebellious. We see similar behaviour in the mass demonstration by he oversea students counteracting the Tibetant riot, in the months leading up to 2008 Beijing Olympics.

I believe these two aspects can help us understand the cause of revisionism that the author mentioned in the article.

January 25, 2014 at 07:20

Typical Japanese tunnel vision, an ridiculous inability to see, feel and understand even their close neighbors due to a thousand year of ‘homogeneous’ island in-breeding.

January 25, 2014 at 11:34

I would argue that people-to-people interaction between China and democracies actually exacerbate tensions between the two civilizations, whose world views are drastically irreconcilable.

Interdependence in the 21st is enabled by transportation and information technology. This means that the rest of East Asian and South East Asian countries are NOT subject to the historical constraint of geography, which was the dominant factor in the era of middle-kingdom tributary system. New aspirations of East Asian and SEA nations, to become relevant economic, political, and maritime states in the globe sense, are fundamentally at odd with the Chinese dream of reviving the tributary system.

A Chinese
January 26, 2014 at 01:27

akira, China dreamed the 21st century world would be “We are now living in a rapidly changing world…Peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit have become the trend of our times. To keep up with the times, we cannot have ourselves physically living in the 21st century, but with a mindset belonging to the past, stalled in the old days of colonialism, and constrained by zero-sum Cold War mentality. “ which part of that Chinese dream is reviving that ancient tributary system?

While the USA and its unrepented war criminal henchman Japan are enforcing their unipolar system (authoritarianism) with bombing, killing and relentless manufacturing consent media campaign by portraying the victim as evil while the perpetrators of war, i.e. the USA and Japan, are presented as victims.

Portraying China as evil with an ancient tributary system to gain legitimacy for their criminal project of global destruction is a “big lie” will not succeed.

Little Helmsman
January 26, 2014 at 05:43


I remember seeing videos of Chinese overseas students in South Korea in a near riot about to lynch Tibetan protestors of the Beijing Olympic torch relay. It was disgusting and it only reinforces the barbarism and uncivilized nature of Chinese culture and Chinese society. Chinese overseas students represent China’s best and brightest. If China’s best and brightest react in such barbarity in a foreign country (ROK) which has free speech, I can’t imagine what the peasant class of China is?

You have a very insightful point about Chinese overseas being more nationalistic about motherland China!! LOL. These overseas Chinese have a unrealistic, simplified, and romanticized view of Red China. Very amusing to see! They do not have to endure the sh*tty and polluted environment of China or the overcrowded conditions in China but they defend mother country China with their keyboard in countries’ that have free speech and basic rights which China has none!

China’s image has a long way to go! That’s why China’s soft power is non-existent.

A Chinese
January 26, 2014 at 07:47

If overseas Chinese are not allowed to defend China against vicious smearing against China on the basis of fascist intent, then in according to your own logic what right do you and all those non-Chinese have to say anything about China at all? Is it another application of Japanese master’s American Exceptionalism, the rules apply to Chinese do not apply to themselves; you should know such “laws of jungle” mentality is a trait of fascist authoritarian.

Besides this is internet a place people can practise freedom of expression, overseas Chinese is exercising their freedom of expression to expose “The Japanese inquisition” purports to its fascist militarism dream.

Japan is an unrepented war criminal, it is twisting and turning to white wash its barbaric war crimes, their PM Abe lied publically in order to mask his intention of worshipping Class-A war criminals, all these are the expression of an unnormal nation, therefore Japanese always behave irrationally, they cannot be reasoned and they are always a security risk to the Asians like their war criminal forbears.

January 26, 2014 at 15:38

Thank you for commenting back.

Historically, China have sent more than enough students abroad since the late 19th century, and have had countless families emigrated to all corners of the world. None of this kind of “human-level-interdependency” had any effect on changing the course of war and peace whatsoever, in and around China.

China’s periodical, dynastic nature is unique, a result of its unique geography. China believes in neither ideologies nor utilitarianism. China believes in “Chineseness.” The concept of “being Chinese” is actually the other side of recognizing the existence of foreign devils (foreign barbarians) in the four quadrants. Without the relevant barbarians in the four quadrants, the identity of Chinese ceases to exist or make much sense, even to the Han people.

China is unique in this way, I think.

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