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International Politics in Northeast Asia: The China-Japan-United States Strategic Triangle

Authored by Dr. Thomas L. Wilborn. | March 1996

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The major powers of Northeast Asia--those nations which can demand to be involved in all significant regional decisions--are China, Japan, and the United States. Russia may be able to claim that status in the future, but for a number of years Moscow will not have the political, economic, or military capabilities required.

The other actors in the region are North and South Korea and Taiwan. Like Russia, they are not insignificant powers which can be ignored. Indeed, if there is conflict in the region, it will probably begin because of actions taken in Taipei or the two Korean capitals. And the economies of South Korea and Taiwan make them valuable trading partners for the three major powers of the Northeast Asia Strategic Triangle.

The three bilateral relationships involving China, Japan, and the United States are the critical factors of Northeast Asian regional politics. They all are, and probably will remain into the 21st century, in flux.

  • The U.S.-Japanese relationship is the most stable.
  • -- Despite serious differences on trade issues, both nations support the international trading system and regional stability.

    -- The mutual commitment to democracy and market economics provides an ideological foundation for the alliance.

    -- The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most highly institutionalized, and the two nations have the highest degree of interdependence, of the three bilateral ties.

    -- Domestic political changes in either capital would be the most likely factor to disrupt the alliance.

  • The Japan-China relationship is potentially volatile in the long term.
  • -- Beijing and Tokyo share objectives related to trade and regional stability, especially in Korea.

    -- Long-term interests diverge with respect to Taiwan, the role of the United States, and Korea.

    -- Historic animosities reinforce tensions and complicate achieving accommodations.

  • The least stable bilateral relationship of the Northeast Asian strategic triangle is between China and the United States.
  • -- Economic benefits and the desire to avoid conflict are the strongest, but not necessarily sufficient, incentives for Beijing and Washington to maintain the relationship.

    -- Differences over Taiwan are the major obstacle to more comprehensive and beneficial cooperation.

    -- Profound ideological differences and perceptions of national interests will insure that there will be strains in the relationship for the foreseeable future.

  • U.S. engagement is a necessary condition for regional stability.
  • Washington's high priority on economics complicates the execution of foreign policy.
  • U.S. domination of its bilateral relationships in Northeast Asia is no longer possible.
  • Abrupt changes of U.S. policy, especially reductions in forward military presence, would undermine American security interests in the region.
  • Improved coordination among government agencies, including military headquarters in the region, and better recruitment and utilization of regional specialists, will facilitate smooth execution of policy in Northeast Asia.
  • For the long range, the United States should place greater emphasis on the creation of multilateral structures to supplement U.S. bilateral ties.


Northeast Asia, as every other region of the world, has been profoundly affected by the end of the Cold War and the implosion and dissolution of the Soviet Union. While the region's politics were never entirely subsumed by the bipolar global structure, the existence of the Soviet Union as putative enemy of China, Japan, and the United States was the single most important factor determining regional alignments. Indeed, the two most critical disputes in the region, the North-South confrontation on the Korean peninsula and the status of Taiwan, are direct legacies of the Cold War. With a weak and nonthreatening Russia succeeding the Soviet Union, other factors--trade, investment, regional security issues, and historical memories predating the Cold War-- now also influence Northeast Asian developments.

Japan and China are clearly the major regional actors in Northeast Asia--indeed, all of East Asia--and can demand to be considered on every significant regional decision. This puts them in a category for which only one other nation, the United States, can qualify. Yet North Korea, South Korea, and Taiwan are not small, insignificant powers which have no ability to influence regional events. On the contrary, each of them have capabilities that permit them to veto certain outcomes, and mobilize support to achieve other outcomes. Moreover, they are directly involved in the disputes more likely than any others to drag the regional major powers into conflict. These governments are relatively ineffective with respect to other issues, however. China, Japan, and the United States have the capacity to be engaged in and influence virtually all regional activities. Russia, the only extra-regional nation other than the United States that might play an important role in regional politics, also exerts influence on some, but relatively few and relatively marginal, issues.1 Russia's share in the region's economic activity is minimal, and it does not have the capable regional military force which its predecessor, the Soviet Union, could deploy in earlier years. The potential for Moscow to assume a greater role in the future--most non-Russians believe in a distant future--is the main source of what influence it can mobilize to affect current regional security affairs.

There are no Northeast Asian security organizations or consultation fora--nothing even remotely similar to NATO or CSCE in Europe. As a result, contemporary inter- national politics in the region consist primarily of complex patterns of bilateral relationships among all the actors.2 From the perspective of regional security, the most critical of these bilateral ties are those between China and the United States, the United States andJapan, and China and Japan. Yet, especially in the short range, the adversarial relations of Pyongyang and Seoul and of Beijing and Taipei, as well as the ambivalent ties between Taipei and Washington and Tokyo, are also extremely important.

The purpose of this monograph is to examine these complex bilateral relationships in order to develop conclusions concerning the prospects for stability in the region, and present recommendations for U.S. policy when appropriate. The analysis is presented in three sections: overview; regional security objectives and policies of the major powers (China, Japan, and the United States), especially in their relations with each other; and conclusions and implications for the United States. The more salient aspects of bilateral relations of the other actors are woven into the descriptions of relations among China, Japan, and the United States.


1. In spite of its geographic position, Russia is not considered a Northeast Asian nation because Northeast Asian elites do not consider Russia an Asian nation. Neither do Russian elites, for that matter.

2. Bilateral relations are not the sole basis for regional politics because all of the actors belong to transregional organizations such as the United Nations, APEC, and the ASEAN Regional Forum. There is no transregional organization in which all five governments participate, however. China, Japan, ROK, and the United States belong to all of them.