Getting to Know the Neighbourhood — Understanding East Asia


Ben Habib at Panmunjeom, on the South Korean side of the DMZ

During the past week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has been in Vietnam representing Australia at the East Asia Summit in Hanoi, Vietnam.  East Asia is a region vital to Australia’s economic and security interests.  Instability in the Taiwan Strait or on the Korean peninsula has the potential to depress Australia’s key export markets in Northeast Asia; China, Japan and South Korea are three out of Australia’s four largest trading partners, with East Asia constituting over fifty percent of Australia’s international trade by region. Australia also has concerns over nuclear proliferation and its probable involvement in a new Korean conflict, along with an interest in the emerging strategic balance between the United States and China—our security guarantor and economic golden goose.  Because of these broad economic and security interests, it is important that we in Australia come to a better understanding of the dynamics of international politics in the East Asian region.  As La Trobe University colleague Professor Joseph Camilleri recently conveyed to me, it is imperative that Australians become more “Asia literate”.

East Asia—comprising China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Russia, Taiwan and the United States as a vested external player—is a complex strategic environment characterised by ongoing rivalry and historic animosity.  Three countries from this group—the United States, China and Russia—are fully-fledged nuclear powers that also occupy permanent seats on the UN Security Council.  China, Russia, North Korea and South Korea possess four of the world’s six largest armed forces.  All of these states have fought wars with one or more of the others in recent memory, leaving a heritage of suspicion that continues to influence their relations today.  Let’s have a look now at each regional state in turn.

The United States

The United States, as the world’s pre-eminent power, has been a pivotal actor in Northeast Asian politics since 1945.  The US alliance network in the region is a legacy of the Cold War.  During this period, Washington positioned its forces to defend the East Asian littoral from Soviet expansion through a series of bilateral alliances—the “hub-and-spokes” system—with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, as well as other Pacific allies such as Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. As an outside arbiter, an “offshore balancer”, the US is able to decrease the perceived need of regional states to engage in military competition and arms racing.

The US can only maintain this role while it remains the most powerful state in the region.  Thus, a key goal of US strategy is to prevent the emergence of a regional peer competitor that could destabilise the hub-and-spokes system and challenge American dominance of the East Asian littoral.  Because China is the only regional power with anything approaching the capacity to disrupt the American regional order, preventing the emergence of a regional challenger has come to imply controlling the rise of China.

The global goal of the United States is the preservation of Pax Americana, the hegemonic order centred on the global capitalist economy through which it has become the world’s preeminent power.  International organisations emerged to regulate this system, largely to benefit the economic interests of the United States.  Clearly this system needs to provide mutual advantages in order to attract the compliance of other countries; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and now China (as well as Australia) have all benefited from integration into this system.  Washington’s challenge is to hedge between the economic benefits of China’s incorporation into the global economy and the perceived security risk posed by China’s rise as a peer competitor.

Two potential flashpoints exist where conflict remains a possibility: the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula.  While Washington and Beijing appear to have reached a modus vivendi regarding Taiwan, in Korea, the US has been active in attempting to alter the balance of power by disarming North Korea of its nuclear capability and transforming or replacing its ruling regime.  It is this activism in pursuing North Korea’s denuclearisation, without success, that is exposing a growing trend of US strategic paralysis in the region that belies its apparent strength.


The Chinese proudly boast over 4,000 years of continuous civilisation, which has produced a rich political philosophy and remarkably consistent brand of strategic thinking that continues to influence Chinese policy makers today.  The Confucian power hierarchy with China at its apex is central to Chinese strategic culture, as is an emphasis on domestic political unity, both of which derive from the continuing cycle of Chinese dynastic history featuring periods of strong centralised government punctuated by intervals of political fracturing and instability.  This pendular history of political centralisation and fragmentation has led to the development of a unique brand of strategic thinking incorporating two key strands: (1) a Confucian legacy emphasising strategy and psychological manipulation over direct battlefield confrontation, a strategic outlook best known in the West through Sun Zi’s classic The Art of War; and (2) a streak of Realpolitik featuring a predisposition to employ force when confronting a crisis.

With its land borders protected by geographic barriers and strategic buffer zones, China’s main geostrategic weak-point is its coastal regions. Such a long, open and exposed border presents a major challenge to every Chinese government’s efforts to maintain an adequate defence against external attack.  The Chinese economic miracle is heavily dependent on sea-borne trade, meaning that blockade or attack by a hostile naval power could cause enormous damage to China’s export economy and expose the underlying cracks in the social fabric.

China’s period of national shame, beginning with the First Opium War beginning in 1836 and ending with the advent of the Deng Xiaoping era in 1978, has instilled in Chinese policymakers the importance of domestic social and political cohesion.  China’s economic miracle, achieved through domestic reform and integration into the global economy, is the basis of this cohesion and has enabled the Chinese Communist Party to consolidate its domestic position.  China’s export-driven economy has created great wealth along its highly developed coastal corridor, albeit with huge wealth disparities.  This large wealth disparity within the coastal regions, as well as between the coastal provinces and the less-developed hinterland, has created worrisome new sources of social friction.

Consequently, the Chinese government’s primary priority is to maintain economic growth and preserve internal social stability.  Externally, China, like the United States, has chosen to hedge its bets by coupling its economic engagement within the structure of US hegemony with limited efforts to balance against encroachments of American power in its East Asian sphere of interest.  What has resulted is a limited balance of power strategy—soft balancing—to grow its own power and limit US hegemonic influence in East Asia while American power is ascendant.


Japan could be considered the linchpin of the Northeast Asian security dilemma because the threat perceptions of the other regional states are acutely sensitive to Japan’s defence posture, owing to its military modernisation by stealth, and its unwillingness or inability to come to common agreement with its neighbours on a mutually acceptable historical narrative of its colonial past.  Therefore, any alterations of its security posture in the direction of greater autonomy are likely to encourage balancing behaviour among its neighbours.  This constraint is problematic for Tokyo.  Japan is a geographically small but densely populated island-chain state that is dependent on imports for almost all of its energy and just under half of its food supply.  These imports, as well as Japanese exports, come and go via vulnerable sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that stretch thousands of miles from the Middle East to the East China Sea.  One would expect any other state in this predicament to have some level of military power projection capability, yet Article 9 of Japan’s “Peace Constitution” restrains Tokyo’s ability to do this.

In a similar vein to Australia, Japan’s preferred foreign policy embodies a hedge between economic engagement with China and the ongoing security commitment to the United States, with an eye on the growing threat posed by China’s resurgence as a great power.  With this in mind, Tokyo is pursuing incremental strategic normalisation through piecemeal increases in militarisation, in tandem with continued economic interaction with China, in order to become the great power it desires without sparking regional tensions.

Japan’s policy of strategic hedging is slowly evolving as a losing gambit, due mainly to the inability of Japan and China to reconcile their competing strategic and economic priorities and the tension within the Japan-US alliance.  The Achilles heel of this strategy, as mentioned above, is that the regional threat perception is likely to linger until the Japanese government acknowledges its wartime past.  North Korea’s nuclear proliferation further complicates what is already a problematic strategic position.

South Korea

It has been the fate of Korea over many centuries to be geographically sandwiched between its more powerful neighbours.  Today, South Korea is caught in a balancing act between its Cold War ally and security guarantor, the United States, and its largest trading partner in China.  Seoul does not want to be forced to choose between Washington and Beijing, yet its major security problems inevitably incur the risk of alienating one or the other.   North Korea’s nuclear proliferation is the wildcard that complicates South Korea’s position, because it often forces Seoul to diverge from the American position in favour of the position taken by China.

South Korea, like its neighbour Japan, is pursuing a policy of strategic hedging to navigate between the United States, its security guarantor, and China, its economic lifeblood.  For South Korea, hedging is prudent because it forestalls Seoul being caught in a compromising position between its security relationship with the US and its growing economic interdependence with China.  Normally states will select economic and security policies that are compatible and mutually reinforcing, however, in this period of power transition in East Asia, that choice is not open to Seoul.  In contrast to Japan, South Korea’s strategic outlook continues to be shaped by its cold war with the DPRK.  The two parties technically remain at war, since no official peace treaty was signed after the armistice agreement of 1953 to end the Korean War.  As the country with the most to lose from war with North Korea, with fraternal ties across the DMZ, and as the state most likely to be responsible for reconstructing a North Korean failed state, it should come as no surprise that South Korea has been the regional state most committed to engaging with Pyongyang.  Also, in contrast to Japan, South Korea is not engaged in vigorous strategic competition with China, which gives Seoul greater flexibility in its own hedging strategy, swinging between Beijing and Washington.

North Korea

North Korea is the wildcard in the East Asian deck, due to its fruitful commitment to nuclear weapons proliferation.  The question is whether the North’s nuclear posture is offensive or defensive in nature, or a combination of the two.  An argument can be made that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability is illustrative of its intention to re-unify the Korean peninsula by force.  More likely, the paramount objective of the North Korean government is self-preservation, meaning the nuclear capability is more likely mobilised for deterrence.  According to the international relations theory of neorealism, we would expect any state with nuclear-capable rivals to develop its own nuclear deterrent to preserve its sovereignty.  Deterrence is the discouragement of the initiation of military aggression through the threat of a retaliatory response.  The North Korean case appears to fit this mould; the Kim Jong-il regime may feel that a nuclear deterrent is necessary to defend against nuclear intimidation or attack by the United States.

This is the reason most often cited in North Korea’s official statements, which maintain that proliferation is a necessity to deter the United States.  The US maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and has threatened to use nuclear weapons against the DPRK repeatedly over the past half-century.  Deterrence has a different meaning in the North Korean context: small countries like North Korea do not deter aggression through the development of second-strike capabilities for mutually assured destruction (MAD), as in the superpower contest of the Cold War.  Rather, they maintain a nuclear threat just large enough to raise the uncertainty in the calculations of an adversary that a first strike would not be completely successful.  In terms of the North’s national security, the nuclear capability provides a low-cost strategic equaliser against the US/ROK forces across the DMZ and a deterrent against attack or invasion from the South.

Possession of nuclear weapons can radically alter the diplomatic weight and prestige of a country.  Because of their power, nuclear weapons dramatically affect the thinking and behaviour of states-people; for the leaders of nuclear-armed states, possession gives them greater leverage in their relations with other countries and allows them to be bolder in pursuit of their national interests.  Non-nuclear states must either accommodate with the preferences of the new nuclear state or form a balancing alliance with an existing nuclear power, an influence referred to as the “nuclear shadow.”  North Korea’s use of ambiguous nuclear blackmail and overt nuclear posturing through nuclear tests seems to confirm this theory and has been successful in extracting a more accommodating political attitude from the US and regional states.

East Asia: A Complicated Picture

East Asian politics is a complicated mélange because it features elements of cooperation, competition and conflict between regional states.  They cooperate by embracing economic interdependence and participation in international institutionalism, which are said to foster learned behaviours of peaceful interaction among states.  They clash at the level of rhetoric, through differences in soft power and hyper-nationalism, as well as alliance building and military engagement that stems from the contest between China and the United States.  Regional states compete because of conflicting economic and security interests, which force states to adopt hedging strategies.  We in Australia need to understand these dynamics so we do not project unrealistic expectations of our government’s foreign policy clout in this important region.




*** For an extended discussion of this topic, see the author’s paper entitled The Six Party Talks and Institutional Security in Northeast Asia: A Grim Forecast, presented at Asian Studies Association of Australia, 18th Biennial Conference, 5-8 July 2010 at the University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.


Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.


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