This Asia Policy roundtable grew out of the workshop "Contesting Visions of Regional Order in East Asia" convened in November 2017 in Singapore by the Regional Security Architecture Programme—a research unit of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This workshop focused on the very important and much discussed topic of the evolving East Asian regional order. It considered the various visions of this order and analyzed the responses from regional states.
A common view within the academic and policy communities of East Asia is that the region is in a period of transition. While one could argue that this is a perennial feature of any regional order, the current transition in East Asia is unique in its own right. This is due to the fast-changing developments in the region that have escalated tensions and uncertainty. Some of the issues that contribute to this negative scenario are growing competition between the United States and China, increasingly strained relations between China and Japan, North Korea's significant progress in its nuclear and ballistic missile programs despite international sanctions, and the fracture and disunity, perceived or real, within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Though the rise of tensions from these issues could be explained in a variety of ways, it is critical to note that these strategic challenges have escalated in seriousness under the specific condition of a transitioning East Asian order. One could argue that the common cause of these issues is the weakening or decline of the aging U.S.-led regional order.
The U.S.-led regional order, which is defined by several features, including the hub-and-spoke system of alliances, has been an important source of stability since the end of World War II. During the Cold War, it overcame the challenge posed by Communism and brought economic progress to East Asia. This U.S.-led order continued into the post–Cold War period, during which the United States was the sole superpower. The U.S. economic, political, and strategic presence in East Asia has evolved through the expansion of strategic partnerships with East Asian states; greater engagement in multilateral political, economic, [End Page 2] and security arrangements (such as the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus); and the strengthening of the network of bilateral alliances. However, this order is increasingly strained, especially in the post-2010 period. Some have even argued that U.S. primacy has ended, and we are ushering in a new world order in which China's leadership will expand.1 The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has hastened the collapse of Pax Americana through the implementation of "America-first" and anti-globalization policies and the questioning of the value of the U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea.
China has emerged as the main potential challenger to the U.S.-led order.2 Though it has benefited from the U.S.-led postwar order, China is widely believed to desire an alternative order that would allow it to pursue its interests as an emerging power unhindered by existing rules and norms. This push is visible in China's efforts to launch the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank under the strong leadership of President Xi Jinping—a leader who has enshrined his name in the Chinese constitution alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. In the completed 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, President Xi announced that China is on the path of being a "great modern socialist country," and "a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence" by 2050.3 With bold initiatives supported by strong leadership and vast amount resources, it is not far-fetched to argue that Beijing will achieve its goal of building a Chinese-led order in the near future.
However, the picture of the evolving regional order is more complex than the situation described above. Much about the U.S. and Chinese approaches toward the East Asian regional order, as well as these countries' attitudes toward each other's role in the region...