A Japanese Perspective on US Policy toward East Asia

November 2007

With the campaign for the 2008 presidential election in full swing and the primary election season soon to begin, the American foreign policy community is currently engaged in an impassioned debate over the future course of US foreign policy. As candidates from both parties cross swords over the issues and leading pundits attempt to maneuver into position for political appointment in the new administration, it is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on how US foreign policy is perceived in East Asia.

An examination of recent US foreign policy finds Washington overwhelmingly distracted by the war in Iraq and events in the Middle East and paying insufficient attention to East Asia, a region that stands to have a greater impact on global affairs in the coming decades than any other. Despite a welcome shift toward support of a more multilateral orientation for the United States, no 2008 presidential candidate has yet to effectively articulate a clear approach vis-à-vis East Asia, leaving policymakers on this side of the Pacific with no choice but to assume that current circumstances are likely to continue even under a new administration. What follows is a series of suggestions on how the United States can most effectively remain engaged and ensure the region’s continued peace and prosperity.

Overview of Current US Policy toward Asia and its Future Outlook

For most of President George W. Bush’s first term, US foreign policy was defined by unilateralism and “coalitions of the willing.” Continued difficulties in the Middle East, coupled with unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism overseas, have led the Bush administration to reexamine its approach to the outside world and reintroduce multilateralism and diplomacy to its foreign policy toolbox. With regard to its Asia policy, this adjustment is perhaps most clearly manifest in recent changes to the administration’s approach to North Korea and the Six-Party Talks. However, this change should not be mistaken as a sign that the United States is reengaging East Asia. Rather, it is a sign of the administration’s new approach to nonproliferation following a five-year impasse with Pyongyang. Outside of the Six-Party Talks, the United States continues to approach East Asia largely on bilateral terms and neglect changing circumstances in the region, in particular the expanding interest in multilateralism and creating a regional architecture.

Looking to the future, although the 2008 presidential race is far from over, one thing is already certain: the next president of the United States will not be someone with close ties to the current administration. An analysis of recent policy speeches and debate transcripts suggests that there is something approaching a supra-partisan consensus among all candidates that the global “unipolar” moment is nearing its end and the United States must henceforth adopt a role as a “global leader,” “rebuilding” its “damaged alliances” and engaging the world in “active diplomacy.” While it remains to be seen whether or not this shift heralds a fundamental transformation in US foreign policy, the widespread use of such rhetoric is no doubt a welcome development for the rest of the world.

The speeches and policy papers of both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates may be noteworthy for their widespread support for a shift toward multilateralism, but they are also notable for the intense focus they place on Iraq and the Middle East, suggesting that the next administration will continue to concentrate the bulk of US resources on that region for the foreseeable future. While this latter focus is somewhat understandable in light of recent events and the region’s unquestionable strategic significance, what is of concern to Japan and its neighbors is that a fixation on the Middle East could result in US policymakers continuing to overlook other regions of equal importance, in particular East Asia.

Admittedly, a few candidates have touched upon the rise of China and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as regional issues warranting US attention, yet these recommendations continue to be packaged in a piecemeal and increasingly anachronistic conceptualization of circumstances in the region. There is a conspicuous absence of any sort of long-term vision for the emergence of East Asia or explication of the kind of role the United States aims to play in its evolution. What roles does Washington envision China and Japan adopting vis-à-vis regional development? How important is East Asia to the United States in terms of trade and security issues? What kind of a regionwide architecture would be most effective for dealing with emerging nontraditional security issues? These are all issues that Washington has yet to sufficiently address.

Why East Asia Matters

Even a cursory examination of East Asia based on conventional measures of national power reveals the importance of the region for the entire world. Using a strictly geographical interpretation of the region, East Asia is home to more than two billion people. The average GDP growth rate of countries in the region was 8.7 percent in 2006 and now accounts for nearly 30 percent of global GDP. Three East Asian nations occupy spots on the list of the world’s top ten military spenders. The long-standing possibility of war in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean Peninsula, numerous unresolved territorial disputes, and nontraditional security issues such as human trafficking, pollution, energy security, and infectious disease all remain substantial threats to regional and global stability.

No country better symbolizes the significance of East Asia’s rise—both its opportunities and potential challenges—more appropriately than China, which serves as an effective illustration of two key points: 1) why no nation with interests in the sustainability of the current global economic and security system can afford to ignore East Asia, and 2) why a singular focus on bilateral relations will not ensure the region’s continued peace, stability, and prosperity. In the face of new challenges, policymakers must aim to maximize stabilizing elements while simultaneously taking a proactive posture to minimize risk.

Taking all of these factors into account, it is difficult to imagine the world’s dominant power ever thinking of a region as important to global prosperity, peace, and security as East Asia as a non-priority. But, if current trends continue, this could very well happen. While regionalism and community-building efforts are certain to expand and accelerate throughout East Asia, these moves should be seen as complements to—rather than replacements for—the crucial role that the United States already plays as a stabilizing force in the region, particularly in the areas of economics and security. While some nations hold mixed feelings about particular US policies in the region, the majority of East Asian leaders see continued US involvement as indispensable and are increasingly concerned about its seeming lack of interest in the region.

What Asia Expects from the United States

East Asia has undergone a substantial transformation since President Bush first took office, yet coverage of this transformation in the Western press is often restricted to articles on China’s environmental problems or North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The extent to which US leaders are aware of more fundamental changes taking place in the region remains unclear. Many of East Asia’s leaders believe that for US policy toward East Asia—which has remained essentially bilateral and ad hoc for decades—to continue to be effective, it should be updated to more accurately reflect contemporary realities in the region.

One of the most significant developments in East Asia in the last few years is the expansion of regional integration and community-building efforts. Although “regionalism” has existed as a buzz word for years, tangible changes, manifest in the establishment of the East Asia Summit in 2005 and the expected ratification of an ASEAN charter in late November, are beginning to take place. While it is unrealistic to expect that an institutionalized “East Asia Community” akin to the EU will be established in the near future, recent developments in East Asia have made it abundantly clear that bilateral relationships can no longer be thought of as separate or distinct from the increasingly multilayered and multilateral networks proliferating throughout the region. Furthermore, the negative externalities of the region’s rapid industrialization and economic growth, particularly with regard to resource consumption and environmental damage, are so widespread that they can only be addressed through cooperation with other nations. US leaders would be well advised to begin framing policy toward the region as exactly that: policy toward the region. Japan’s agenda for East Asia, for one, is to consolidate and expand the number of rule-based bilateral and multilateral institutions to build confidence between states and provide a hedge against instability as the region moves further along in its efforts at community building.

East Asia has seen a recent explosion of bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs), which will no doubt lead to greater prosperity throughout the region. But, increasing economic integration (e.g., soaring intraregional trade levels in East Asia currently stand at over 55 percent, second only to the EU.) makes it clear that for such institutions to be effective, states can no longer think of trade and investment in strictly bilateral terms. Additionally, while the immediate goal of these FTAs is no doubt economic—trade and market liberalization—these agreements also play an instrumental role in confidence building by binding signatory states in a network of rules and regulations. The United States can contribute to these efforts through an expansion of its links to the region through APEC and other multilateral institutions in addition to supporting the further proliferation of rule-based institutions that extend beyond market liberalization to tackle other areas of concern to the region such as investment, dispute settlement, technology standards, food safety, and intellectual property rights. Civil society, in particular dialogue and exchange among think tanks and NGOs, also has an important role to play in underpinning such government-led initiatives.

In the security arena, while it is clear that the traditional “hub-and-spoke” system of US security arrangements will continue to play an integral role in ensuring regional stability for the foreseeable future, new security challenges—particularly in the field of nontraditional and human security—demand more cooperative solutions. To this end, it is clear that extant institutions must either evolve to become multilateral and inclusive in their orientation or be complemented by new institutions that meet these conditions. For example, US leaders might engage members of the East Asia Summit in discussions about the possibility of establishing an East Asia Security Forum to proactively tackle new security challenges.*

Arguably the greatest single challenge facing nations with interests in East Asia is dealing with the rise of China. China’s fundamental importance as an engine of global growth, in addition to the need for its cooperation on energy security, the environment, infectious disease, maritime piracy, and a host of other nontraditional security issues, make it abundantly clear that a return to a Cold War–era policy of containment would only be self-defeating. In its place, these issues would be most effectively addressed by proactively engaging China bilaterally and multilaterally in a web of rule-based communities to ensure that it plays a responsible role in global affairs. In addition to welcoming China’s continued participation in existing institutions such as the WTO, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit, it is also necessary to create new mechanisms to manage the region’s changing circumstances.

There is little doubt that China has already become a great power in the region and, barring an unexpected political or economic implosion, all signs suggest that current trends will continue for the foreseeable future. Despite China’s growing influence, however, there continues to be a conspicuous absence of any solid mechanism for dialogue between China and the other main centers of power in the region, namely Japan and the United States. It is time to restructure the trilateral relationship and begin the process of directly addressing its weaknesses. For example, while simultaneously maintaining the US-Japan alliance as the central pillar of regional security, a new mechanism aimed at institutionalizing regular trilateral dialogue must be established. This dialogue would not only facilitate confidence building (e.g., through candid discussions of specific security concerns such as the lack of transparency in China’s military spending and operations) among the three powers but could also be used to address issues relating to nontraditional and human security threats. Given sufficient will in Tokyo, Washington, and Beijing, this framework could also be expanded to play an integral role in tackling energy security and environmental issues.


For the past six decades, US policymakers have understood East Asia’s global strategic significance and adopted a proactive approach to ensure the region’s peace and stability. As the region’s economy experiences unprecedented expansion and intraregional ties continue to deepen, the importance of East Asia to US interests is on the rise. Somewhat paradoxically, however, recent years have seen Washington shift its attention elsewhere. Current trends are of great concern to the majority of East Asia’s leaders, who see the continued involvement of the United States as integral for sustaining regional economic growth and stability into the future.

There are manifold reasons for the United States to remain engaged in East Asia and reframe its policies vis-à-vis the region to more accurately reflect changing circumstances. Bilateral and multilateral dialogue with states in the region, in particular Japan, will facilitate this effort and pave the way for more in-depth consultation on key initiatives such as the creation of a regional security architecture. On the other hand, inattention or disregard for recent developments in the region would not only hurt US interests but also hamper regional efforts to cooperate and address issues of global significance such as trade liberalization, human security, energy, and the environment.

* For more information on the East Asia Security Forum proposal, see the April 2007 (Vol. 2, No. 2) issue of East Asia Insights: ‘East Asia Community Building: Toward an ‘East Asia Security Forum.'”

About the author

Hitoshi Tanaka is a senior fellow at JCIE and chairman of the Institute for International Strategy at the Japan Research Institute, Ltd. He previously served as Japan’s deputy minister for foreign affairs. Views expressed in East Asia Insights are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Japan Center for International Exchange.