East Asia Commentator – Deus ex nation: Vitriol, History and the State

Scott Musgrave*

This is the first part of a four part series where Alochonaa East Asia Editor, Scott Musgrave looks at the tide of hostility in East Asia between Korea, China and Japan. Scott argues that it is the engagement, or the lack of engagement of the US, that affects how these states interact with each other, particularly in regards to Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Part 1: The System

Inzai, April 3, 2014 (Alochonaa): East Asia has become the forefront of a new struggle. At the turn of the 20th Century it was the squabbling powers of Europe that was the forefront of world worry, now at the dawn of the 21st Century we are faced with what some have said is just like that foreshadowing era before the first world war. There is no doubt that China is a rising power that wishes to challenge the status quo. That is, the US led political system, particularly in East Asia.

Since the end of the Cold war, the United States has been the predominant superpower. Unparalleled in military and economic might, the US has had its fingers in every pie around the world. Whether protecting its own interests or occasionally delving into humanitarian crises, leaders in Washington have been at the forefront of most major conflicts and pushes forward across the world. US hegemony in the world has been a given for the past 30 years and still doesn’t look like changing that much.

China is the old-new kid on the block. Previous to the 19th century, China was a veritable cock of the walk. It was the centre of civilization in Asia and those around it gasped in awe of its culture, civic organisation and power.  One needs only to look at architecture in Korea, Vietnam and Okinawa to see the legacy that the various dynasties left behind. It appears to want to achieve that status again after the loss of much of the 1850-1950 period to foreign incursions and domestic turbulence.

As it stands there are five great powers in East Asia: Japan, China, the Republic of Korea, the USA and Russia. For the sake of this analysis however I will be dropping Russia as it is not aligned with any of the great powers in the region. The RoK and Japan however are aligned with the United States and China is the growing power that is central to the argument that will be presented.

Understanding the current situation can first be explained in terms of power. Power is largely measured in terms of economic and military might. The United States is top dog in both these areas which is why it is the hegemon. In order to become hegemon there must be no other power that can challenge it. In the Cold war, there was a bipolar system of the US and Soviet Union competing for dominance and eventually achieving a yin-yang relationship with the development of mutually assured destruction. However with the fall of the Soviet Union the system has now become unipolar. There is no one nation that can match the US pound for pound. This is just as true in East Asia. Whilst many are right in their praise for the growth of the Chinese economy, the threat can be easily mitigated by the US. However, as the United States has often mentioned in its ‘Asia pivot’ it is unlikely to throw its weight around and will most likely use its allies in Asia to balance the rise of China. This is referred to by Steven Walt as “offshore balancing.”

Offshore balancing is when a great power influences other locally aligned states to take the bulk of the challenge. It has a lower strain on resources of, in this case the US which is something it very much wants to do. Costly excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq since the beginning of the century have seen a more hands off approach to creating a balance of power in areas where US influence is being challenged. Furthermore, the US does not want to look like it is balancing against the Chinese either.  Given the entwined nature of the American and Chinese economies it would be wise to ensure that any possibly perceived aggressive movements be kept off the table. Furthermore, offshore balancing means that the US can shrug its tag of being the ‘world police’ and further better its international reputation from being the military interventionist to the passive yet diplomatically active overseer. The US is making very sure that it does not overreach.

Let’s bring this back to the implications for East Asia.  The US maintains two major allies in the region for balancing purposes. The RoK has been compliant with US security desires since the end of World War II and particularly since the end of the Korean War. Japan too has been under American influence since its defeat at the hands of the Allies in 1945. Both the RoK and Japan owe much of their economic developmental success to key American policies. The RoK in particularly was built up with the hope of being a bulwark against communism in East Asia. Japan too was developed with this in mind.

What this means today is that two nations of significant are indebted to the US and heavily rely on it to supply a security guarantee via the Japan-US and RoK-US defensive alliances. However, because the US wants to appear more covert in its desire to balance it has gently encouraged Japan to take on more of the security burden. Economic development has been allowed to flourish in Japan under the US security guarantee.

Aircraft carrier at the Yokosuka naval base. One of the biggest tools of power projection the US has at its disposal - Google Images

Aircraft carrier at the Yokosuka naval base. One of the biggest tools of power projection the US has at its disposal – Google Images

The United States wants to appear less involved. The positioning of the 7th Fleet (the largest US fleet in existence) based in Yokosuka, Japan is a constant reminder of hard military power. Furthermore, the various garrisons of American troops in Japan and South Korea also do little to dispel the appearance of hard military power. These elements put their allies at ease. Both Japan and the RoK are well aware that in times of trouble, the United States will come to their aid.

This enters murky waters. Too much commitment to the region can entrap the US in an unwanted conflict in East Asia. Too little could lead to further problems where Japan and South Korea could feel abandoned. Both of these cases are undesirable but US engagement in East Asia leans further towards entrapment rather than abandonment. This brings me to our next point.  When US engagement is at its highest, the RoK and Japan don’t play well together.

The Japan-Korea relationship has had a chequered past, and one that will be covered in more depth later on in this series. However, at times of great power commitment, Japan and the RoK have been more likely to squabble. However, when that great power commitment seems wavering, there has been a greater desire to cooperate. (If you would like to know more about this particularly phenomena in a Cold war context, please read Victor Cha’s “Alignment Despite Antagonism.”)

This seems to be just as much the case now as it has been historically. Before the global financial crisis in 2008 leaders of Japan and Korea were largely at each other’s throats, safe in the notion that America would protect both of them regardless of the rise of China. However, after the GFC, a much more conciliatory approach was taken. This also happened to coincide with some North Korean sabre rattling.  Some trilateral exercises took place with US as well as military exchanges between South Korean military and Japan Self Defence Force personnel. Fear of abandonment forced the two together.

Now the environment is different. The ‘Asian pivot’ by Washington has largely assured that Japan and RoK interests are safe and once again both are pursuing domestic goals at the expense of friendly international relations.

China’s growing power has yet to really impact the balance of power in East Asia, but if it is to continue its quest for a sphere of influence, it may well force Japan and South Korea together.

The redefinition of the ADIZ and the more vociferous claims over the disputed Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands by China has caused much tension in the region, particularly between Japan and China. However Japan knows that China is not ready to defend these claims with force as it risks triggering the US-Japan defence pact.

US commitment to the region makes diplomatic relations between those nations based in Asia very difficult. Amicable relations can be thrown to the wind in order to pursue domestic political goals with the knowledge that no matter what happens, the US will bail them out. Washington cannot risk to leave East Asia, but nor can it allow such a toxic environment to perpetuate.

I hope I have shown here the importance of US involvement on strategic thinking in East Asia, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Analysing domestic matters deepens our understanding of this complex matter. Systematic concerns aside why is it that domestic political gain can be made by attacking one’s neighbours? This will be explored in the part of this series starting with the Republic of Korea.

*Mr. Scott Musgrave, East Asia Editor for Alochonaa, is an avid East Asia watcher. Scott has written a Master thesis on contemporary Japan-Republic of Korea relations at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. He now lives in Japan keeping his finger on the pulse. Scott is available on twitter via @ScottM_IR where he also comments on his other love, football. 

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


Categories: Asia, China, Japan, Republic of Korea, US

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