In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Fifty-Plus Years of Watching Asia: An American Perspective
  • Sheldon W. Simon (bio)

As a prelude to this personal rumination on the issues in Asian international politics that have occupied my professional life, I wish to express appreciation to See Seng Tan for asking so many well-qualified colleagues to contribute their own assessments to this compendium. My fascination with Asian politics began as an undergraduate in the 1950s at the University of Minnesota, where on a cold, snowy morning in January, Professor Werner Levi—a German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who held three doctorates, including one in politics—stated that the world’s future would lie in Asia. A combination of ancient civilizations, historical grandeur, and a strong work ethic among its populations, he argued, would transform Asia in due course into the world’s most dynamic region. He went on to say that those of us who planned for a career in public affairs should consider becoming students of Asia. I was convinced.

Upon completing my PhD in political science, I took a position with the U.S. government for three years analyzing Soviet and Chinese commentary on Asia. During this time, I honed the research interests that characterized my subsequent academic life—the interface between the great powers and Asian states as well as the dynamics of the developing Asian actors in dealing with great-power pressures and blandishments. Of course, the Asia-Pacific was home to three of those great powers—the United States in the aftermath of World War II, China under the aegis of its Communist Party, and the Soviet Union. This essay addresses these dynamics in two sections—one on the security arrangements in North and Southeast Asia and one on recent U.S. relations with states in both subregions—before concluding with some final thoughts.

Northeast and Southeast Asian Security Arrangements

From an American perspective, it is useful to divide the analysis of East Asia into its northern and southern components. The United States’ Cold War and post–Cold War attention to the region may be assessed through its security arrangements. For Northeast Asia, this would be the ongoing presence of U.S. forces in the aftermath of World War II. Japan and the [End Page 74] Republic of Korea (ROK) became junior partners in Washington’s East Asia strategy opposing the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and North Korea. Thus, the U.S. hub-and-spoke security arrangement came into existence. Unlike NATO, a multilateral European military alliance requiring each member to come to the others’ defense in the event of an attack, Washington was unable to effect a similar arrangement between Japan, the ROK, and the United States. Korean bitterness over Japan’s colonial legacy meant that Seoul was unwilling to engage in any security agreement with Tokyo. The alternative was separate U.S. bilateral defense treaties between the United States and each country. The United States was the “hub” and its bilateral partners were the separate “spokes.” These spokes for the most part did not interact militarily with each other. For example, until recently, the Japanese and ROK navies only directly interacted with each other through U.S. intersession in multilateral maritime exercises such as the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC).

By contrast, the Southeast Asian states assayed a number of times to create multilateral institutions beginning in the 1950s—for example, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the Association of Southeast Asia, and Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia (MAPHILINDO). None were successful, but all demonstrated a realization among non-Communist elites in the region that some form of political collaboration was necessary to deal with both extraregional and intraregional challenges from China, the Soviet Union, and North Vietnam. Southeast Asian leaders were also concerned that Western states might leave the region as the Indochina wars of the 1950s and 1960s ended with Communist victories.

Southeast Asian leaders conceived a new regional organization in 1967, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), composed of Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia. In the mid-1960s, Indonesia’s president and founding father Sukarno had attempted to destroy Malaysia, which he saw as a neocolonialist country...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 74-82
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.