Leveraging America’s Asian Pivot to Reinforce the Transatlantic Alliance and Vice Versa

China’s rise is no longer a regional phenomenon but a global one, as the country “goes west” through its Belt & Road Initiative, waves of Chinese capital wash into Europe, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates from a military base in Djibouti, and China’s financial and diplomatic influence are felt everywhere from Brasilia to Bangui. Similarly, the future of Western-led global institutions is in question as China promotes a set of parallel institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank. Japan and India are looking to engage more closely with Europe on trade and security. European countries themselves are rapidly pivoting to Asia, and not only in commercial terms, as they seek to expand partnerships with dynamic Asian powers. Meanwhile, the United States is pulled between its old transatlantic ties to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a growing strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific as the region that will, more than any other, define the terms of the twenty-first century international order. 

The liberal world order constructed by the United States and its allies in the second half of the twentieth century is now fraying, leading to questions about how great powers in the United States, Europe, and Asia could cooperate or clash to shape the emerging global system. Recent developments are ominous. China’s leaders appear determined to threaten and even use military force to redraw the strategic map of Asia, complicating America’s ability to remain the region’s security guarantor and seeking to subjugate Japan rather than sharing leadership. Instead of celebrating the liberation of its people from tyranny and its re-integration with the world economy, Russia’s leader sees the collapse of the Soviet system as a tragedy and is working to build a new shadow empire in Eurasia. Parts of the Middle East have collapsed into violent anarchy, producing the greatest refugee crisis since WWII and threatening the unity of Europe.  Meanwhile, the global economy lacks new sources of growth amidst fragility in emerging markets like China and Brazil and stagnation in the developed markets. Partly as a result, Western democracies are under pressure from forces of populism, nativism, and isolationism.

The eroding global liberal order requires the United States to leverage its European allies to support common goals in Asia, while securing greater support from Asian allies for transatlantic objectives, on the grounds that the wider international system is at risk from developments in and around both regions. Specifically, it and its allies in Asia and Europe could rise above their regional agendas to cooperate more systematically across regions. This includes countering great-power revanchism in Europe and Asia; championing the indivisibility of the global security order; enhancing solidarity between Atlantic and Pacific allies; deepening democratic partnerships; standing up for universal values rather than bowing to the new authoritarianism; and renewing economic growth as the foundation of effective grand strategy. 

The alternative to an international system in which the United States and its European and Asian allies do not lead together—not only in their respective regions but also more widely at the global level—is one in which international order becomes further fractured and contested, with forces that do not share the allies’ interests and values shaping global politics at their expense. The need for cooperation among the world’s Atlantic and Pacific democracies led by the United States is urgent, both to strengthen the rules-based order so that new powers can rise peacefully within it, and to create a more accommodative international context in which to renew the foundations of governance and growth at home. 

Countering Great-Power Revanchism in Asia & Europe

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has appealed powerfully for a global order based on adherence to the rule of law, democracy, and the peaceful resolution of conflict.1 China and Russia are the primary great powers that spurn such a vision and seek instead to advance revisionist territorial objectives through the threat and actual use of military force. China is actively challenging Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands and has declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, covering both Japanese and international airspace. China also claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, including islands well over 1000 kilometers from its mainland, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as well as the territorial rights and claims of a range of other Southeast Asian nations. China has deployed military forces to reinforce its revisionist claims; it has also undertaken major construction works to create artificial islands in the South China Sea, and militarized them by deploying fighter aircraft and missile systems on these distant spits of land. 

In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine, seizing Crimea and deploying irregular forces to the Donbas region, where they continue to occupy Ukrainian territory. In 2015, Russian forces intervened unilaterally in Syria to support the illegitimate regime of Bashar al-Assad, whose war against his own people has caused the death of nearly half a million Syrians and displaced half the population. Senior Russian officials have threatened nuclear strikes against European members of NATO, and Russia deploys anti-access and area-denial systems that make parts of the core NATO region itself a no-go zone for alliance forces.

The United States is determined to remain both Asia and Europe’s security provider of choice in light of these threats, but it cannot do so alone. It needs the active help, support, and co-leadership of its allies, including European NATO partners whom President Barack Obama has accused of “free-riding.”2 US allies in Europe and Asia are the enablers of America’s military presence there, but Washington also looks to them to lead beyond its alliance relationships—as the European Union has done in imposing tough sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and as Japan has done by forging closer defense partnerships with Australia, India, and Southeast Asian nations, and joint missile defense exercises with the United States and the Republic of Korea, which are scheduled later this month.

Indeed, both the United States and Europe should more expressly support Japan’s ambition to serve as a regional security provider in and beyond Asia. Under Abe, Japan has revised its domestic laws to enable its Self-Defense Forces to cooperate more closely with allies in crisis situations. Japan is emerging as an arms exporter and military partner to friendly countries like Australia and India, in ways that will boost allied capabilities to maintain balance in Asia. Japan is helping to train and equip maritime forces in Southeast Asia to better police their waters. Japan is also increasing its defense budget and realigning its forces to enable it to better project power in Asia to uphold regional peace. 

From an American perspective, more allies should follow Japan’s example—rather than outsourcing security to Washington, they should actively work to expand their capabilities and willingness to provide global public goods of security and stability. Instead of lecturing Japanese about historical matters dating back more than 70 years, European critics could, in particular, learn from Japan how to renew national power and increase the quality of their alliance with the United States by assuming greater responsibilities within it.

Championing the Indivisibility of the Global Security Order

Nearly as critical as collaborating on defense within their respective regional theaters is Japanese support for the integrity of the European security order, and European support for the integrity of the Asian security order. To its credit, Abe’s government has implemented sanctions against Russia alongside American and European allies, even as Tokyo seeks to build a strategic partnership with Moscow in Northeast Asia.3 Europeans (and Americans) view Japan’s solidarity on Russian sanctions as a key test of Tokyo’s wider commitment to an international security order governed by rules rather than the unilateral use of force to resolve conflict, whether in the Donbas or the East China Sea. As Andrew Small and Sarah Raine argue:

Japan’s solidarity in imposing economic sanctions in reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea has… provided an important reminder to European nations of the importance and utility of cultivating as broad as possible a consensus on international legal norms and standards. If such acts are to be seen for the violations of international (as opposed to Western) legal norms that they are, then some solidarity across the hemispheres—beginning with unity at G7 level—is vital. And here, with its parallel imposition of sanctions on Russia, Japan has taken a clear stand—taking the opportunity to remind its European partners of the common threat they face when major powers seek to change the status quo by force or coercion, with clear reference to its own parallel security concerns regarding Chinese ambitions in the East China Sea.4

The renewal of sanctions against Russia in 2016, given the continuing presence of Russian forces in Ukraine and Moscow’s refusal to honor the Minsk cease-fire agreement, will be a test of all the allies’ commitment to uphold the sanctity of the rules-based global order. As G7 chair in 2016, Japan will earn more robust support from European nations for its defense of rules-based order in Asia if it remains committed to the same principles in Europe in the face of continuing Russian aggression. Similarly, European leaders cannot claim that they are “neutral” in the face of China’s territorial revisionism in Asia in violation of long-standing principles of international law, or that they cannot take a stronger position because Europe does not have the same security commitments or capabilities in the region as the United States. The European Union originally adopted a policy of “principled neutrality” in the face of China’s revanchist claims in the East and South China seas.5 As Hans Kundnani argues:

This idea of European “neutrality” is flawed. First, because of their sheer size as an economic power, Europeans cannot escape the reality that their decisions and actions have political and security and other implications…Second, if Europeans stand for anything, it is the international rule of law. This means territorial and maritime disputes in Asia should be resolved through international law…Third, even if Europeans were prepared to abandon their values and reconcile themselves to a new sinocentric order in Asia and focus on avoiding a conflict that would threaten their economic interests, “neutrality” is not necessarily the best way to do so…Fourth, whether they like it or not, Europeans cannot remain indifferent to what is taking place in Asia because of the increasing interconnectivity between European and Asian security…Finally, Europeans will simply not be able to remain “neutral.” Europeans still depend on the United States for security…Thus “neutrality” is an unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating position for Europeans to take.6

The European Union’s position has evolved, in part thanks to diplomatic lobbying by the United States and Japan. In late 2015 and early 2016, it repeatedly condemned China’s militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea and called for Beijing to resolve maritime disputes with neighbors according to international law rather than the threat or use of military force.7 The European Union “strongly supports the American guarantee of international law in Asia,” according to one EU official.8 At the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting in November 2015, in a clear reference to Chinese territorial revisionism in the East and South China Seas, European leaders joined Japanese and other counterparts in underlining the importance of “refraining from the use or threat of force, of abstaining from unilateral actions and of resolving maritime disputes through peaceful means in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law.”9

At the German Marshall Fund’s 2016 Brussels Forum, Thomas Bagger, the Policy Planning Director at the German Foreign Ministry, made a subtle but important argument for European activism in Asia despite problems closer to home. He maintains that Europe has a vital stake in US-Asia relations, in part because, as the channel between Washington and Beijing becomes the world’s most important bilateral relationship, European allies do not want to be cut out. And as a liberal trading superpower, Europe has an enormous stake in Asia’s peaceful development and the role of China within it. For these reasons, European leaders cannot simply write off Asia as being too far away, or outsource European interests in freedom, security, and the rule of law to the United States and its allies there. Instead, the European Union and individual European powers must heighten comprehensive (not just commercial) engagement on Asia, including through closer cooperation with the United States.10

Deepening Solidarity between Atlantic and Pacific Partners

During the Cold War, the US-led Atlantic and Pacific alliance systems developed independently of each other. In Europe, the NATO alliance took shape to commit the United States to the security of a continent that had generated two world wars, to deter Soviet adventurism, and to bind German power in a multilateral framework of cooperation. In Asia, by contrast, the United States developed a set of bilateral alliances anchored in the US-Japan Security Treaty. In this hub-and-spokes system, the primary ties between Asian nations often ran through Washington. The region and the world today could not be more different. The alliance systems in both Europe and Asia should adapt accordingly so as to leverage transatlantic influence in Asia and ensure that Asian powers are aligned on Western security priorities.

For a start, given global stakes in issues like freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of territorial conflicts, it makes sense to institutionalize connectivity between the democratic alliance networks in Europe and Asia. One way to do this is through more robust NATO engagement with what the alliance calls “global partners” like Japan, South Korea, and Australia.  Deepening these relationships does not require European allies to run freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea: these and other Asian allies offered strong support for NATO operations in Afghanistan, outside both the European and East Asian theaters. Closer cooperation could involve joint patrols of the global commons in the Indian Ocean that link the Atlantic and Pacific domains; collaboration on missile and cyber threats that cut across regional dividing lines; military training and education programs that transcend regional boundaries; and joint planning for contingencies in the “in-between” spaces of Africa and the Middle East. Abe has addressed the North Atlantic Council to call for invigorated Japan-NATO cooperation, which could include additional Japanese contributions to European security, for instance by joining NATO naval exercises in the Mediterranean or collaboration on Arctic security.11

Japan has also led in tightening defense relations bilaterally with the United Kingdom and France, demonstrating how America’s core Atlantic and Pacific partners view the mutual benefits of closer security ties in an era when threats are no longer purely regional in scope.  Although it does not possess the same expeditionary capabilities, Germany could enlarge bilateral ties with Japan, given the growth of a Germany-China “special relationship” that is founded on close trade and investment ties but which has implications for international security dynamics. A balanced German approach to Asia would include equally strong, if not stronger, ties to democratic governments in Tokyo and other Asian capitals like New Delhi. Japan may define an interest in investing more diplomatic energy in deepening ties to Central and Eastern Europe, through which passed the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” envisioned by Foreign Minister Taro Aso during Abe’s first term (2006-2007).12 This could be a useful counterpoint to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to construct infrastructure superhighways between China and Europe through this region, as well as to the “16+1” meetings of Central and Eastern European leaders with Chinese counterparts.13

Deepening democratic solidarity is not simply a question of greater US-Japan-Europe cooperation to manage regional contingencies. A new trilateral alliance spanning the Atlantic and Pacific realms could help offset pressures on the global system, including those created by the projection of Chinese power and influence well beyond East Asia. As Kanehara Nobukatsu, assistant deputy chief cabinet secretary in the Japanese Prime Minister’s office argues:

For the first time since the Meiji period, China instead of Russia is emerging as the largest and strongest continental power. Also, yet again for the first time since the Meiji period, the comprehensive national power of China is beginning to surpass the comprehensive national power of Japan. The importance of alliance policy is more and more being called into account. Today, Japan and China, with their size, can make a difference in the global balance of power. An alliance policy for twenty-first century Japan must put its focus to the balance of power not only on a regional scale but also on a global one.14

Despite the rise of China and the revanchism of Russia, the global balance of power will continue to tilt in favor of the democracies if the United States and its Atlantic and Pacific allies act together systematically and rigorously to preserve its material and ideational underpinnings.

Remaining True to Universal Values in Dealings with China

The United States and allies across the Atlantic and Pacific can also use their combined moral voice as democracies representing nearly one billion citizens to jointly challenge the Chinese government to be attentive to its peoples’ natural rights. In doing so, they ally themselves with Chinese citizens who seek greater rights, rather than with leaders who come and go. This is particularly urgent in light of the crackdown on free expression and association under President Xi Jinping, who has centralized political control to a degree unseen since Mao Zedong, and whose administration has persecuted real and imagined political opponents to a degree unseen since the Cultural Revolution. Western and Asian democracies are speaking out, at least quietly.

In January 2016, the ambassadors to China of the United States, Japan, Germany, the European Union, and Canada signed a joint letter expressing unease about China’s new counter-terrorism law and punitive draft laws on cyber-security and non-governmental organizations, warning that the combined effect of the laws would be to “impede commerce, stifle innovation and infringe on China’s obligation to protect human rights in accordance with international law.”15

In February, this same group of North American, European, and Japanese ambassadors was joined by additional colleagues in sending a letter to China’s Minister of Public Security expressing “growing concerns over the Chinese government’s commitment to the rule of law and basic human rights,” including a crackdown on civil society leaders, human rights activists, lawyers, and labor leaders.16 In March, the United States, Japan, Britain, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Australia condemned China’s “problematic” and “deteriorating” human rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council.17 China’s government is bound to take such combined protests from the world’s leading powers more seriously than when they are done in isolation, and to treat Western and Asian democracies with more respect for standing up for their values than for abandoning them.

Part of any strategy to incentivize transparency and accountability inside China is to shape its neighborhood in ways that promote high regional and global standards for political reform and democratic development. In that light, the United States, Europe, and Asian partners could coordinate more closely to promote free institutions, human rights, and the rule of law in strategic countries like Myanmar as they move towards democratic accountability, and to engage more systematically with pivotal democracies like Indonesia to support the economic growth that reinforces political freedom. Southeast Asian powers look to the European Union as a model for building their own regional community; they look to Japan, the original “Asian Tiger” economy, as a country to emulate in their quest for development and as a leading provider of foreign assistance; and they look to the United States as a regional security guarantor and source of trade and investment. They seek to balance intimate economic ties with China with closer diplomatic, defense, and economic links with other great powers, including India. Regional states that have the closest ties to Beijing, including Cambodia and Laos, are among the least democratic. There is ample scope for US-European-Japanese-Indian coordination to build institutional and economic capacity among Southeast Asian nations, whose combined population is the size of the European Union and Japan combined to anchor the region’s democratic development.

Renewing Economic Growth and Resiliency as Foundations for Trilateral Cooperation

Perhaps, more than any military or diplomatic initiative, spurring growth and innovation is central to the ability of the transatlantic and trans-Pacific allies to collaborate to shape and defend the liberal international order. The United States, Europe, and Japan are engaged in major trade initiatives that, if enacted, would provide positive and long-term growth shocks to their economies. These include the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is at its heart a free trade agreement (FTA) between the United States and Japan; the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the United States and the European Union, which would be an even more economically consequential agreement if finalized and enacted; and the Japan-EU FTA currently under negotiation. 

It is also possible to imagine linking these initiatives in time as building blocks of a new global round of multilateral trade liberalization at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Given barriers to trade and investment in China’s state-directed economy, the pursuit of “competitive liberalization” by enacting high-standard trade agreements among market democracies in Asia and Europe could incentivize leaders in Beijing to pursue liberalizing reformsto enhance their country’s economic competitiveness and prospects of joining TPP while agreeing on a trade and investment treaty with the European Union and spurring additional growth through a new round of global trade opening at the WTO.

America, Europe, Japan, and India all have mutual stakes in each other’s domestic reforms as well. The US-Japan alliance has been revitalized by “Abenomics,” as the current Japanese government pursues radical measures, including monetary easing, trade opening, and greater opportunity for women in the workforce to catalyze growth at home. As the US economy continues to recover following the shocks of the global financial crisis in 2007-2009, its European and Japanese partners will look to America as an engine of global growth as emerging markets from Brazil to China sputter. The European Union’s economy is more exposed to international trade than are those of the United States and Japan, making it a bellwether for the health of the global trade order more broadly. India has become the world’s fastest-growing major economy and will ultimately emerge as its largest consumer market, making it among the most important future economic partners for the industrial democracies. It is a difficult trade negotiator, but prospects like integrating it into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and fast-tracking trade and investment agreements with America and Europe should bear fruit over time, as has Japan’s recent economic engagement with the South Asian powerhouse.


After 1945, the United States and its European and Asian allies built an international economic and political order based not only on power but also on rules, ultimately overwhelming the revolutionary challenge from the Soviet Union. That order went global after 1989, making possible gains in security and prosperity previously unimaginable to those who had lived through a twentieth century marked by bloody world wars, the development of apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, and the rise of totalitarian ideologies that enslaved hundreds of millions of people.

Although the relative weight of the United States and its traditional allies has diminished as power diffuses and non-Western states produce a greater share of global growth, they still generate around half of global gross domestic product. Integrating India into this club over time will produce mutually beneficial economic dynamism given the complementarities between its human capital and development requirements and the technology of the advanced economies. Together, the United States and its European and Asian partners enjoy a preponderance of military power, dominate international institutions, and enjoy the soft power afforded by their open societies—an underappreciated asset in the strategic competition with China and other non-democracies. America and its Asian and European allies should not underestimate their combined ability to steer the coming era in a direction that continues to privilege their interests and values, while integrating friendly rising powers like India, in ways that channel China’s own choice ultimately to join the global liberal order rather than subverting it. 

1. Shinzo Abe, “Keynote Address” (speech, Shangri-La Dialogue 2014, Singapore, May 30, 2014), http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri%20la%20dialogue/archive/2014-c20c/opening-remarks-and-keynote-address-b0b2/keynote-address-shinzo-abe-a787.

2. Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Obama Doctrine," The Atlantic, April 2016, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-obama-doctrine/471525/. The actual Obama quote is: “Free riders aggravate me."

3. Thomas Graham, “How Russia Could Help US and Japan in Asia,” Nikkei Asian Review, March 23, 2016, http://asia.nikkei.com/Viewpoints/Viewpoints/Thomas-Graham-How-Russia-could-help-US-and-Japan-in-Asia.

4. Sarah Raine and Andrew Small, Waking Up to Geopolitics: A New Trajectory to Japan-Europe Relations (Washington, DC: German Marshall Fund of the United States, May 2015), 9, http://www.gmfus.org/publications/waking-geopolitics-new-trajectory-japan-europe-relations.

5. European External Action Service, “Guidelines on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy in East Asia,” http://eeas.E.U.ropa.E.U./asia/docs/guidelines_E.U._foreign_sec_pol_east_asia_en.pdf; Mathieu Duchatel and Fleur Huijskens, “The European Union’s Principled Neutrality on the East China Sea,” SIPRI Policy Brief, February 2015, available at http://books.sipri.org/files/misc/SIPRIPB1502d.pdf.

6. Hans Kundnani, “The Impact of TPP on the EU,” in unpublished report for the European Parliament on the transatlantic implications of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, eds. Daniel Twining, Hans Kundnani, and Peter Sparding.  See also, Hans Kundnani and Michito Tsuruoka, “The Illusion of European ‘Neutrality’ in Asia,” European Geostrategy, Sept. 25, 2014, http://www.europeangeostrategy.org/2014/09/illusion-european-neutrality-asia/.

7. Caleb Velasquez, “European Union Calls Halt on Militarization, Threat of Force in South China Sea,” Update, March 28, 2016, http://www.update.ph/2016/03/european-union-calls-halt-on-militarization-threat-of-force-in-south-china-sea/3614; “European Union Sides with United States on South China Sea Incident,” Reuters, October 30, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-usa-eu-idUSKCN0SO22G20151031.

8. David Brunnstrom, “US and EU Warn China of Need to Respect South China Sea Ruling,” Reuters, February 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-eu-southchinasea-idUSKCN0VR01V.

9. Jiji Kyodo, “In Veiled Reference to South China Sea, Asia-EU Foreign Ministers’ Summit Urges Peaceful Resolution of Disputes,” The Japan Times, November 7, 2015, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/11/07/national/veiled-reference-south-china-sea-asia-eu-foreign-ministers-summit-urges-peaceful-resolution-disputes/#.VvkjTHrsF2A.

10. Thomas Bagger speaking at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum, March 18, 2016, http://brussels.gmfus.org/.

11. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO’s Relations with Japan,” Brussels, October 26, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_50336.htm.

12. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Taro Aso, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,” November 30, 2006, http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/fm/aso/speech0611.html.

13. Daniel Twining, “China’s Transatlantic Wedge,” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/03/23/chinas-transatlantic-wedge/.

14. Nobukatsu Kanehara, “Japan’s Grand Strategy: State, National Interest and Values,” Japan’s Diplomacy Series, Japan Institute for International Affairs, http://www2.jiia.or.jp/en/digital_library/japan_s_diplomacy.php.

15. Jason Subler, “Major Powers Team Up to Tell China of Concerns over New Laws,” Reuters, March 1, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-lawmaking-idUSKCN0W225P.

16. Simon Denyer, “Is China Heading in the Wrong Direction? For Once, the West Calls Beijing Out,” The Washington Post, March 23, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/is-china-heading-in-the-wrong-direction-for-once-the-west-calls-beijing-out/2016/03/22/c4cad76e-eacb-11e5-a9ce-681055c7a05f_story.html.

17. Ibid.