I noticed a slight change in focus before leaving the Pentagon last year. When the Obama administration introduced new initiatives as part of its policy of “rebalancing to Asia,” it increasingly involved the South China Sea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar. India was becoming a larger strategic priority. And people began a discursive shift from Asia as a “Pacific theater” to Asia as a “maritime theater.”
Since leaving government, I’ve seen the change become more acute, accentuated by ritualism and entrenched positions in Northeast Asia. China and Japan are in a kind of stalemate in the East China Sea, while China and Taiwan are, for now, both vested in preserving the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. Relations between North and South Korea remain frozen in time, and, 50 years after normalization, Japan-South Korea relations show no signs of sustainable improvement.
Northeast Asia is a garden that needs continuous tending. It remains crucial to the global economy and U.S. interests, and a conflict there could be civilization-ending. But policymakers on all sides have been largely boxed in by the strategic choices of their predecessors. The lines of competition are clear and heavily militarized, and the stakes unmistakably high.
In other parts of Asia, the potential benefits of access and influence are also great, but the dynamics of competition are less direct and more opaque. There is a rigidity to Northeast Asian geopolitics, while the rest of the region is more like the geopolitical Wild West.
Asia’s strategic center of gravity, it seems, is shifting toward the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The shift matters, among other reasons, because it affects where and how strategic competition among nations plays out.
Not too long ago, Robert Kaplan predicted that Asia’s future would increasingly converge on the Indian Ocean and the surrounding territories, as it had hundreds of years ago. He’s not wrong. South Asia and Southeast Asia are becoming more important for everyone due to crucial sea lines of communication for trade, global energy flows, and as a basis for power projection.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force now routinely refer to Asia not as the “Asia-Pacific,” but as the inappropriately wordy “Indo-Asia-Pacific” (which thankfully has not fully caught on inside the Pentagon). Friends from the defense community in Australia have been nudging the United States toward the moniker “Indo-Pacific” region for years. Through various cooperative military exercises with local militaries, Japan is extending its naval reach for the first time in the 21st century to the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. And after millennia of geographic separation, China and India are contesting one another’s spheres of influence. India not only looks east, but is increasingly acting in that direction, while China is shifting its strategic initiatives south and west, competing with India for local access, presence, and resources.
Different competitive logics are at work in different parts of the region. Every call for taking greater risks to confront China in the South China Sea or to deliberately introduce friction to force a choice on China shows a failure to understand that the incentives for certain types of behavior vary by location. In Northeast Asia, the game is chess, or even checkers. In Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, the game more closely resembles an Eastern strategy game known as “weiqi” in China, “baduk” in Korea, and “Go” in Japan. Given the commonality of players across sub-regions this may seem odd, but the pursuit of an Eastern strategy game is partly a function of the tight, semi-frozen state of confrontations in Northeast Asia.
Japanese military assistance to the Philippines, Chinese economic infrastructure combined with fighter aircraft and other modern weaponry for Sri Lanka, and Indian pipeline projects in Myanmar—all are examples of stones, thoughtfully placed on a board that until recently U.S. policymakers didn’t even realize existed. As Kaplan observed, “China’s move into the Indian Ocean constitutes less an aggressive example of empire building than a subtle grand strategy to take advantage of legitimate commercial opportunities wherever they might arise in places that matter to its military and economic interests.” The same might be said of everyone playing in Asia’s emerging center of gravity.
It’s difficult to categorize whether most forms of assistance or cooperation in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea serve a distinctly military, economic, or political purpose. But that reflects the subtlety—the indirectness—of the game being played there. All manner of non-traditional security issues are highly en vogue there; any excuse to help out others potentially helps out oneself as well. States are pursuing not alliances but weak ties, which sociology tells us can be quite potent in many different circumstances.
Contrast this with Northeast Asia, where there is much less room to maneuver. New initiatives are rare, low key in comparison to the outstanding disputes that persist, and often judged skeptically. Non-traditional security issues like cyber security and disaster management are occasionally discussed in Northeast Asia, but even in the rare instances when they are pursued, they have zero effect on the region’s geopolitical dynamics. It’s difficult for anyone to take an indirect competition approach within Northeast Asia, because the terms of interaction are so tightly defined.
The Indian Ocean and South China Sea are thus not only important for their own sake, but as a less defined sub-region that offers new types of opportunities and constraints for Northeast Asia’s stalemates. This is one of several reasons why I think a North Korea obsession is South Korea’s past, while South Korea’s future is, perhaps counter-intuitively, in a more southwesterly direction than many realize.
The differential nature of competition in Northeast Asia as compared to the rest of the region is instructive for policy planning. Taking a non-traditional security approach to Northeast Asia, or investing heavily in “low politics” there, is unlikely to yield major dividends. Much as we may not like the militarization of foreign policy, Northeast Asian stability demands a somewhat confrontational geopolitical logic. But in South and Southeast Asia, taking a militaristic approach to policy all but guarantees alienation and isolation. Competition there is essential, but overt confrontation will play poorly.
Asia’s modern map includes more than one game, and knowing which game is being played where offers at least the prospect of winning.