- The Role of Japan in Sustaining Regional Order in East Asia
East Asia faces a diverse set of security challenges, both traditional and nontraditional. Countries have attempted to address these challenges through a variety of security measures, including alliances, political and security communities, and other frameworks for regional cooperation. These initiatives are often independent from each other but not mutually exclusive. It is important for countries to share a clear understanding of what the core element of the regional order is and to try to network their various endeavors in order to generate maximum synergy.
Many in Japan view the U.S.-centered alliance network as the bedrock institution of the regional security structure in East Asia and believe that the U.S.-Japan alliance is the central piece of this network. This essay examines this conception of the regional order and is organized into three sections. The first section provides an overview of the regional security environment, while the next section explains the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the regional security system. The essay then concludes by discussing the prospects for multilateral cooperation to strengthen the regional order.
The Regional Security Environment
East Asia has been stable for decades but includes numerous sources of potential instability. Asia is home to four established nuclear powers, and five nuclear weapons states in total with the addition of North Korea. Three of these countries are in East Asia, and Japan neighbors all of them. Moreover, the region includes two hot spots with long-standing military disputes that involve divided states—the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait—as well as a flashpoint for potential conflict, the South China Sea, given the escalation of territorial disputes between China and other claimant states.
The most serious threat to regional stability is North Korea's rapidly developing nuclear weapons and missile programs. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since October 2006, and one can reasonably assume it has already, or is close to, successfully miniaturizing [End Page 32] nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has also conducted tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles with the capability to reach much of the continental United States. Just as the Korean War militarized and globalized the Cold War over a half a century ago, the current situation on the Korean Peninsula reminds the world of the global nature of the security threat posed by North Korea.
Another serious challenge in East Asia is China's maritime expansion. China's land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea continue, while in the East China Sea Chinese law-enforcement vessels regularly enter the contiguous zone surrounding the Senkaku Islands and intrude into Japan's territorial waters.1 To become a maritime power has been a dream of China's since its defeat to the United Kingdom in the Opium Wars in the 1800s.2 China's provocative actions in the East and South China Seas have heightened tensions with regional states and disrupted the East Asian order by trying to alter the status quo by force and challenging the U.S. presence, which is the basis of the regional security system.
Looking at the big picture, today we see more competition between sovereign states and more confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. This trend is accelerating WMD proliferation and disrupting free and unimpeded access to the global commons, particularly in the maritime sphere. China, with its growing power and influence, is trying to keep the United States as far away as possible from the Asian continent. If this situation continues, the balance of power will tilt more toward China, which would be detrimental to the national interests of Japan.
However, it is also important to note that the Sino-U.S. competition is not a Cold War–style competition. Because of globalization, both the United States and China have national interests that overlap in a number of areas, as does Japan. In those areas, there is room to broaden cooperation. The international security agenda in East Asia today intertwines complex traditional and nontraditional issues and requires delicate diplomacy by all players involved. [End Page 33]