Easternization and Security in Asia

Tsuneo Watanabe
Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation

Easternization and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific

Unquestionably, the most significant diplomatic agenda item that the Joe Biden administration presented in the 100 days following its inauguration is the strengthening of confrontation and competition with China and its engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. The US' Indo-Pacific diplomacy has unfolded at an unexpectedly rapid pace: President Biden's phone calls with Japanese Prime Minister Suga and with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Quad Summit (online), the US-Japan and the US-ROK two-plus-two talks, the US-China diplomatic leaders meeting, the US-India defense ministerial meeting, and the US-Japan and the US-ROK Summits.

Interestingly, concurrently with the Biden administration's moves, European countries are showing their readiness to engage with the Indo-Pacific: the European Union (EU) announced that it would come up with an Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021. 1 In May 2021, French troops participated in joint maritime drills with Japan, the United States, and Australia in the East China Sea off Kagoshima. 2 They also participated in US-Japan joint drills for defending remote islands at the GSDF Kirishima Training Area in Kyushu. 3 Meanwhile, on May 20, the European Parliament decided by majority vote to suspend deliberations on ratifying the EU-China investment agreement already reached in principle. 4

Although it is impossible to judge at this point, the shift of US and European interest to the Indo-Pacific may be one of the historical trends that can be called "Easternization." In his book "Easternization," Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs columnist for the Financial Times, explains global trends based on an analysis of the actual shift of balance of economic and military power from the United States and Europe to Asia.

According to Rachman, after the great voyages of the 1490s, Europe gained global dominance thanks to the centuries-long development of military power, navigation technology, and industries. European imperialism turned many Asian countries into colonies and objects of exploitation, thus establishing an era of Western dominance. But a new turn came with Japan's economic development that began in the 1960s, followed by such economies as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. At present, China has become an economic and military superpower second only to the United States, while the economic development of Southeast Asia and India is also drawing attention. 5

Rachman argues that according to the IMF's purchasing power parity, three of the world's top four economies exist in Asia, with China leading the United States while India and Japan rank third and fourth. And the author adds that although the second-ranked United States is not an Asian nation, it faces the Pacific Ocean, possessing overseas territories in the Pacific Ocean such as Hawaii and Guam. Looking back for comparison at the past half-century since 1975 during which the world was led by the G7 (initially the G5) including Japan as the only Asian nation, Rachman emphasizes that the current shift in power from the West to the East is remarkable.

Rachman also states that even if the future economic growth of China and India fail to follow a smooth path, since these two countries are already major powers in terms of their economic scale, the geopolitical center of gravity will irreversibly shift to the East. The United States, the world's hegemonic power, is shifting its pivot to an alliance with the Pacific Ocean states from the trans-Atlantic alliance with Europe (now NATO) that it has made much of since World War I through the Cold War to the present. This attempt is heralded by the "Pivot to Asia" policy (later renamed as the Asia rebalancing policy considering European concerns) introduced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell in the first Obama administration. Rachman devotes an entire chapter to the "Pivot" in his book mentioned above, focusing on the thinking of the strategy's chief proponents, Clinton, Campbell, and Thomas Donilon, then Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

The "Pivot" of the first Obama administration continued in the second Obama administration but ended unfinished due to: the appointment of National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who could not abandon her illusions about G2 cooperation with China and Secretary of State John Kerry, who emphasized Europe; the growing problems in the Middle East, including Syria; and increasing concerns of Europe. After its inauguration, the Trump administration took a hardline stance against China while underrating Europe. President Trump downplayed European allies and desired to score political points by achieving a trade deal with China. His relationship with Japanese Prime Minister Abe also helped President Trump to adopt this policy line. It may have been a bolt from the blue to Europe that the Trump administration announced in 2020 that it would reduce US troops in Germany.

Joe Biden, who had criticized Trump's disregard for allies, came to power with a pledge to repair damaged US-European relations. He made progress in restoring relations with Europe while carrying on the policy of emphasizing the Indo-Pacific. Interestingly, Europe also began to engage with the Indo-Pacific. As predicted by Rachman in 2016, Easternization had already been underway not merely in the economic domain but also in geopolitics. Decisive momentum came from the strategic concept of the "free and open Indo-Pacific" and the policy of confrontation and competition with China promoted by the Trump and Biden administrations.

The figures attesting to geopolitical Easternization appeared in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun's May 23 article, "Chart Shows Military Center of Gravity Shifting from West to East." The US military's overseas troop deployments have shifted from Europe and the Middle East to Asia over the past 20 years. Looking at the shares of global military equipment, that of the Asia-Pacific region has increased compared to other regions, partly because of China's remarkable military expansion and responses of neighboring countries. In 2000, the US military's overseas deployments to East Asia and the Pacific was 39.7%, but by 2020, it increased to 48.9%. Comparing the number of fourth-and-newer generation fighter jets by country between 1990 and 2020, the United States decreased its fighter jets from 2,155 to 1,784 and Russia (the Soviet Union in 1990) 630 to 624, while China recorded an overwhelming increase from zero to 941. Taiwan also increased its fighter jets from zero to 325, Japan 135 to 304, and South Korea 48 to 279. 6

The Future of the Indo-Pacific Order

Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative US think tank, also points out that the world's geopolitical center of gravity is shifting from the West to the East, referring to Rachman's discussion of Easternization. On the other hand, Cooper argues that there is enormous uncertainty about what the future order in the Indo-Pacific will look like; he categorizes and discusses potential paths for the future of the region. 7

The first scenario is a "US-led order," where the United States, together with its allies, will develop regional rules and norms as an extension of the existing order; the US military will be guaranteed freedom of action in the region without restrictions. The second scenario is a "China-led new order," where China will replace the United States and assume a leadership position, increasing its political, economic, technological, military, and cultural influence in the region.

The third scenario is a "US-China bipolar system," or a world in which the United States and China compete against each other and regional states are obliged to choose the side of either the United States or China. The fourth scenario is a "multipolar system," or a world in which three or four states compete for regional power and influence. In addition to the United States and China, the possible actors may include India, Japan, and Indonesia; in such a case, most of the actors will maintain their stance of joining no alliance whatsoever. 8

Cooper poses three questions to identify factors that will help determine one out of the four scenarios: (a) to what extent China's economic and military influence will continue expanding; (b) whether the United States will continue its engagement with the region; and (c) to what extent the major actors in the region will pursue independence from the United States or China. According to Cooper's tentative hypothesis, since China's influence will continue to grow (a), the possibility of the first scenario (continuation of the US-led order) is low. Since the United States will continue to engage with the region (b), the possibility of the second scenario (China-led new order) is also low. If the major actors in the region do not want independence from the United States or China (c), then there will likely emerge a bipolar system, divided between the US and China blocs. But in fact, such actors as India, Japan, and Indonesia do not want the region to be multi-polarized. In the meantime, they cannot accept China's aggressive behavior, nor can they envisage the future of the United States. Consequently, once the region is multi-polarized, Cooper argues, the regional actors may eventually come to feel comfortable with it. For the United States, the multi-polarization of the region is not desirable, but since the major regional actors are democracies and share interests with it, the United States would benefit a great deal from the multi-polarization. 9

Cooper's argument is a "brain teaser" for predicting the future. But his argument helps us to identify significant points about the issue. There are multiple possibilities for a future order in the Indo-Pacific. Whether the first scenario or a US-led order closer to the existing one or any other scenario emerges, the US-China confrontation and competition will be inevitable in the process of a settlement, and the geopolitical tension in the region will last for long. The Indo-Pacific region, as Rachman states, amasses the world's wealth, and its regional states, as the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports, compete in military buildup. It may be natural to think that geopolitical discourses on the regional order of the Indo-Pacific will provide a platform for discussing the future global order.

The Biden administration's policy of confrontation and competition with China is not merely an attempt to secure US interests by building up the military and economic power to counter China. It has also launched a competition with China over a "rules-based order" --- the guiding principle for the future global order. This may be why the United States engages more with the Indo-Pacific to counter China and why European countries are also trying to engage with the Indo-Pacific region.

The Biden Administration's Strategic Outlook

The strategic outlook of Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific coordinator of the National Security Council (NSC) in the Biden administration, shows the future direction of the United States based on reflections on the strategies of past US administrations. Referring to the "Pivot" strategy that Campbell led during the Obama administration, Rachman argues that it was not easy for the United States to pivot to Asia because the Obama administration was preoccupied with military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Rachman, Campbell firmly believed that the US foreign policy had become dangerously unfocused after a decade of war in the Middle East (and Afghanistan). 10 Rachman also points out that the Obama administration split between two factions: one oriented toward US-China cooperation in global governance by building a G2 relationship with China, and the other, like Campbell, oriented toward cooperation with traditional allies in the Indo-Pacific region. 11

However, the shift to the Indo-Pacific envisioned by Campbell is not an unrealistic one that assumes the restoration of the overwhelming military and economic influence of the United States like in the past or that demands US withdrawal from the Middle East and Europe. In his book, "The Pivot," Campbell states that there are more synergies between the continued US engagement with the Middle East and the pivot to Asia because most Asian countries depend on the Middle East for energy. 12 He also points out that the United States' pivot to Asia is not a pivot from Europe to Asia, but a pivot with Europe to Asia. 13

A joint paper by Campbell and Rush Doshi, senior director for China in the NSC, carried in the Foreign Affairs magazine, was written along the line of argument similar to Cooper's --- US supremacy in the "multi-polarization" of the Indo-Pacific order. The model of the "Asian order" they propose is not the US-China bilateral cooperation (G2) or the restoration of US hegemony, but the "Vienna System" based on the balance of power among the great powers that maintained long peace from 1815 to World War I in 1914. Its goals and approach are to 1) maintain the balance of power, 2) build order of which legitimacy regional states recognize, and 3) bring together allies to deal with China, which threatens the goals 1) and 2). 14

Given the Biden administration's policies to date, the "balance of power" mentioned in 1) is to strengthen the alliance with Japan and South Korea through the two plus two (diplomatic and defense ministers talks) and summit meetings, and to intensify relations with India and Australia through the Quad (Japan-US-Australia-India) summits and US-India defense ministerial talks. Another task of the Biden administration is to 2) build an order whose legitimacy is recognized by regional states. A significant part of this effort, including the strengthening of the US-Japan alliance and the Quad (the first Quad foreign ministerial meeting and its regularization took place under the Trump administration), has been carried out as an extension of the previous Trump administration. But fundamentally, Trump's behavior was antagonistic to building the regional order. Consequently, the "Asian order" policy endows the Biden administration with the advantage of showing its difference from the Trump administration.

Currently, India, ASEAN and Pacific island countries, South Korea, Australia, and other Indo-Pacific countries are under the overwhelming influence of China's economic and military power but do not want to be subordinate to China as China expects them to be. However, Campbell and others hold that if the United States fails to provide legitimacy to the building of a new Indo-Pacific order, the region will risk being subjected to China's influence, external power shut out, and smaller countries deprived of their freedom.

European countries have vital economic interests in the Indo-Pacific countries, such as China, Japan. Their interests will also be affected by the "creation of legitimate regional orders" in the world. It is, therefore, no wonder that they are much concerned with the effort of "building a legitimate order" in the Indo-Pacific. This is because the collapse of the existing order in the Indo-Pacific would affect Europe and the world. In the past, the order established by the United States and Europe affected the world. The fact that European leaders are at present obliged to take an interest in the building of a new Indo-Pacific order attests to the trend of Easternization.

What the History of US Engagement with the Asia-Pacific Suggests

Finally, we will examine the question (b) raised in Cooper's "brain teaser," "Will the United States continue its engagement with the region?" This is the most vital factor that will determine the future course of global Easternization. American history is a long one of development across two oceans --- close relations with Europe across the Atlantic and with Asia across the Pacific --- while also engaging with the world. Chronologically, US engagement with the Atlantic preceded that with the Pacific, but the United States has never disengaged from the Pacific.

Following the 2021 Quad (US-Japan-Australia-India) summit, historian Walter Russell Mead argued in a March 2021 Wall Street Journal column that it is of primary importance for the Indo-Pacific countries wondering whether to accept or resist China's will to increase its influence over its neighbors to measure future US engagement with the region. He cites a 2017 book by Michael Green, senior deputy director of CSIS, "By More Than Providence," as an informative guidebook to consider this question. 15

According to Mead, Greene maintains that US interests and presence in the Pacific region have occupied a prominent place in US foreign policy since the founding of the United States and have at all times been increasing in importance.

The United States' historical interest in the Pacific region is associated with commerce, security, and values. From the moment the United States acquired the West Coast with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, security issues began to shape US Pacific diplomacy. By the mid-19th century, the necessity of policy measures, such as the annexation of Hawaii, to strike a favorable balance of power in Asia for American safety was widely accepted among Washington policymakers. Long before the current rise of China, the United States built coalitions in the Pacific to counter Britain, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

Mead concludes, "But if allies sometimes doubt U.S. wisdom, the American commitment to the region is so deeply grounded in history and the structure of U.S. interests that walking away from the region is the one thing Washington is least likely to do." 16

In the concluding chapter of his book, Green refers to WWII US policy of prioritizing the European front over the Pacific front. The massive expansion of wartime production in the United States sustained that policy. He argues that the United States cannot repeat a similar decision under the current severe budgetary restrictions. Asia, according to Green, is now the epicenter affecting the global order; therefore, priority will remain on the Pacific. 17

Throughout US history, stability in the Asia-Pacific has been essential for US security and prosperity. Therefore, the United States has to date continued engagement with the region, and the Indo-Pacific has risen to the top of the US agenda. The future of the Indo-Pacific will depend to a large extent on the degree of US engagement. Looking back over its history, it is hard to imagine the United States hesitating to engage with the Indo-Pacific, which has much to do with Europe and the Middle East, unless the United States becomes "introverted."

Green maintains that the current Easternization is not a phenomenon occurring only in the Indo-Pacific but is defined by the interaction of the United States, Europe, and the Middle East; US engagement with Easternization and its progress are irreversible. This is also the conclusion of this paper.

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