NBR’s Strategic Asia Volumes at the End of an Era

Ashley J. Tellis, Abraham M. Denmark, and Greg Chaffin, eds., Strategic Asia 2014-15, US Alliances and Partnerships at the Center of Global Power (Seattle & Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2014); Ashley J. Tellis with Alison Szalwinski and Michael Wills, eds., Foundations of National Power in the Asia-Pacific (Seattle & Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2015); and Ashley J. Tellis, Alison Szalwinski, and Michael Wills, eds., Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific (Seattle & Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2016).

With this issue we conclude the series of review articles carried in the journal since its inception. The journal is downsizing, eliminating this feature, cutting the number of Alternative Scenarios by half, and reducing the scale of the Special Forum and the Open Forum by one article each. Otherwise, we will begin the next phase of The Asan Forum with the same range of coverage across the Indo-Pacific region, the same aim for depth and insightfulness in analyzing international relations, and the same quest to alert readers to perceptions from the region or newly aired in Washington, DC.

The year 2016 brings to a close an era in the evolution of international relations in the Indo-Pacific. Reviewing two volumes in the annual series Strategic Asia, which dates from 2001-2002, we, fittingly, try to put this era in context. If the decade of the 1990s brought US unilateralism and triumphalism, as the disorientation caused by the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union enveloped East Asia along with the lull resulting from China’s purposeful adoption of a low profile as it sought economic integration into the regional and global economy, the era of the 2000s to 2016 had a different atmosphere. It saw considerable continuity in East Asian policy under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies. It also witnessed the rise of China in what might best be differentiated into three phases: the Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao transition to 2008; the newly assertive Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping transition from 2008-2013; and the highly assertive Xi Jinping outward thrust in 2013-2016.

Four Regional Arenas of Asia Face a New Era from 2017

The Asan Forum has covered this third phase of the era, ranging across four regional arenas of Asia: Asia’s alliance triangle; Asia’s northern tier; Asia’s southern tier; and Sino-US, Sino-Japanese, and Sino-ROK relations encompassing East Asia. Each of these arenas has experienced tumultuous developments during Xi Jinping’s first four years as China’s leader, Barack Obama’s second term as president, Abe Shinzo’s four years as prime minister after an earlier one-year stint, Park Geun-hye’s nearly four years before her impeachment, and Vladimir Putin’s four years in charge once he returned as president. Northeast Asia, where these five leaders interacted, remains the focal point of the journal. Southeast Asia, Australia, South Asia, and Central Asia figure into coverage as extensions of Northeast Asian and US regional dynamics, as ASEAN, the South China Sea, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and increased great power maneuvering all widen the web of salient international relationships.

The case for 2017 beginning a new era can be made on the basis of US politics and each of the four regional arenas. Donald Trump looms as a radical departure for the style and substance of his foreign policy, including to the Indo-Pacific region. By the end of 2016 his campaign, presidential transition, and personnel choices had alerted the world to a startlingly different approach to rivals, allies, US government offices, and traditions of policymaking and implementation. Given the US leadership role in East Asia, such an important transformation at the top, is bound to be epoch-making.

The alliance triangle has been strengthened after struggling in 2013 to 2015 with the fallout in Japan-ROK relations from the “comfort women” issue, but it stands on the precipice of a more serious rupture or, against recent odds, a transformation to true trilateralism. We should not expect developments after a new president takes office in Seoul to be one more chapter in the lengthy saga of ups and downs between these two US allies. Rather, the combination of Abe’s proactive pursuit of a strategic Japan-US alliance, Korean progressives and public opinion indicating readiness to repudiate recent ROK-Japan agreements, and US determination to make allies take a stronger, united stance against threats (e.g. THAAD, burden-sharing, or intelligence-sharing) brings the triangle to the threshold of a showdown. In the shadow of what many expect to be a new North Korean provocation, this showdown would proceed not on the leisurely schedule of past Japan-ROK feuds, but as a quick game changer.

The northern triangle is also being tested in new ways with 2017 a possible turning point. China, Russia, North Korea, and Mongolia could revive the 1950s lineup of a unified camp, e.g., in opposition to increased US pressure on North Korea with use of secondary sanctions that anger China and Russia and through Mongolia acceding to increased, joint Sino-Russian pressure due to its economic fragility. Alternatively, in the aftermath of Abe’s enthusiastic pursuit of Putin all the way to the end of 2016 or in anticipation of Trump’s repeatedly declared plan to pursue Putin once Trump is in office, there could be new doubts about the strength of Sino-Russian relations, to which, China may respond, as already appears to be the case, with blandishments to keep Sino-Russian ties growing stronger. The recent period has seen Seoul strive for Beijing’s support in dealing with Pyongyang and Washington continuing to seek its support for Security Council resolutions, but a new era may reveal the divide over North Korea and regional security to be too wide for continuing business as usual.

The southern triangle is poised for transformation as well. This could be prompted by a Sino-US confrontation now that China is militarizing islands in the South China Sea. It also could be occasioned by a more open split among the ASEAN states, given the Duterte and Najib shifts away from the United States. India is a major player in Southeast Asia and great power balancing, but it is not yet known how Trump will engage Modi. The Australian-US-Japan triangle will bear watching as well in 2017, as Trump decides on how to work with allies and also what his Taiwan policy will be.

Of course, the closest attention will be directed at the Trump-Xi relationship, from trade to security to summit diplomacy. On whatever foundation these leaders build, the core triangles of East Asia will be affected. 2017 may bring to the fore a trend in progress in 2015-2016—the strengthening of US-Japan alliance relations in opposition to China. The spillover from this would cast doubt on the Sino-Japan-ROK triangle and the Sino-US-ROK triangle. In both of these configurations Seoul would find it more difficult to maneuver. Polarization’s impact became clearer in 2016, as ROK ties with Beijing frayed, and it is poised to have a greater impact under Trump. Over the period of his presidency, we can expect to face many challenges in revising our assumptions about the Sino-US relationship and its impact across much of Asia.

The Strategic Asia Volumes Coverage in 2014-2015 to 2016-2017

In the first book in the series Strategic Asia, the editors identified their mission as providing the best possible assessments for understanding the Asian strategic environment. Separate chapters were included on China, Japan, Korea, Russia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. These countries and sub-regions figure in the following annual volumes as well. The result is a valuable record of the evolution of thinking in the academic and think tank communities of how each of these countries year-by-year has reacted to its changing strategic environment. The most recent volume can be used, as I did for many years, in classes centered on the latest developments in the region. A series of these books over an extended period serves the research aims of all of us who seek to trace developments in regional relations. The consistent high quality of the contributions to these volumes makes both of these objectives easier.

Each year, the editors of the Strategic Asia book choose a theme that leads authors to orient their analyses toward a common dimension of international relations. The 2014-2015 book showcased US alliances and partnerships. The following year focused on the foundations of national power. Most recently, the 2016-2017 book concentrates on understanding strategic cultures. Taken together, these three volumes provide a synthesis of forces shaping this region’s strategic environment in the mid-2010s. In each case, the book opens with an overview or framework authored by Ashley Tellis that situates what follows in a context that makes clear the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Readers grasp how the volume is carefully constructed in a manner conducive to contributors addressing a shared set of concerns and questions.

The 2014-2015 book reviewed how US treatment of alliances and partnerships came to serve US grand strategy; it provided a base line for adjustments as some functions were reallocated. This was a timely examination of shifting alliances: with Japan as Abe grew more proactive, with South Korea in relation to the growing deterrence of North Korea, and with Australia as a wider alliance network was sought. The volume proceeded to analyze alliances with the Philippines and Thailand, which would soon become problematic, and five partnerships and relationships from India through Southeast Asia to Taiwan, ending with a system-level analysis of strategic hedging. It is difficult to imagine a more useful, well-timed, and comprehensive collection of the US-led strategy of solidifying strategic cooperation across the Indo-Pacific region. In the following two years there would be urgent need to update this coverage and to delve further into degrees of hedging, cognizant of the foundation established here.

The 2015-2016 book narrowed the scope to national power in seven countries—taking resources, ability, and outcomes as the conceptions of power that are used. Authors proceed to examine the foundation of China’s power, whether Japan has what is necessary to deploy significant military capabilities, what challenges limit South Korean power, and what to make of Russia’s apparently rising power and the unrealized power of India. The final two chapters center on Indonesia’s reluctant use of power and US competence in converting its resources into national power with an eye to the adequacy of defense budgets and force structures. Tellis observes that the first volume of the series also assessed national power, and, applying a new, more systematic approach, this one makes possible a more in-depth assessment. The clarity of the overall design, the editorial cohesion enabling comparisons, and the quality of individual analyses produce a volume of both immediate and lasting value. As debates about relative power—especially US and Chinese—intensify, this systematic approach to great powers and one middle power is of enduring merit.

The 2016-2017 volume covers the same seven countries with an eye to how strategic culture helps to explain decision-making. It serves as a valuable companion piece to the prior volume, delving further into what lies behind national power and how it is utilized. Again there is a Tellis framework followed by coverage of China—depicted as guided by realpolitik with Chinese characteristics—and ending with examination of the United States. More than other books in the series, this volume addresses the historical background of current ways of thinking. While this can add a very useful dimension to strategic analysis, it often elicits deductive arguments from those who long have viewed the contemporary period through a predetermined historical lens while not immersing themselves in the ups and downs of the strategic recalculations under way. Tellis interprets strategic culture for this volume as “referring to those inherited conceptions and shared beliefs that shape a nation’s collective identity, the values that color how a country evaluates its interests, and the norms that influence a state’s understanding of the means by which it can best realize its destiny in a competitive international system.” Making this definition a workable framework for the authors engaged to apply it poses a challenge that Tellis seems to acknowledge in his stress on the diversity of strategic cultures in Asia and the complications they introduce for US policymaking. Thus, this volume aspires to what is often missing in analyses of power, but the relatively light hand of the editors—in this case no doubt influenced by an impression that the study of strategic culture and national identity is too disparate to impose a sterner comparative framework—lets authors follow their own proclivities without a systematic and convincing comparative outcome.

The three most recent Strategic Asia volumes demonstrate the maturity of a project with unparalleled ambitions to organize and shape thinking about the international relations of the Indo-Pacific region. Whereas early volumes veered toward updating what was happening in the region in a given year—yearbooks had been common in the 1980s-1990s—later volumes grew increasingly sophisticated in explaining what accounts for ongoing developments. They keep adding to the foundation built by this series. This is not US-centered, as often occurs. It keeps the focus on the breadth of strategic connections, never neglecting Russia and India as these two states lately have become more integrated and consequential in shaping regional developments. In many ways, the series serves as a model for bringing together experts to write what they usually would not anticipate doing on their own and driving them into a collaborative scholarly undertaking of considerable value in teaching and research.

Suggestions for Going Beyond What Has Been Achieved

The Strategic Asia volumes sensibly eschew a review of the field, but, in so doing, there is a tendency to fall back on a particular author’s outlook, which may fail to capture certain recent directions of scholarship. Also, the volumes are structured mostly around single-country analyses, valuable as they are, which can leave gaps in

three key respects: comparisons, interactive responses to shared challenges, and the pursuit of various types of regionalism and multilateralism. Obviously, a purposeful approach does not need to be comprehensive. There are many others striving to fill various gaps in coverage, including The Asan Forum. Yet, at times, the Strategic Asia books could realize their potential better by directly addressing some existing gaps.

On the state of the field, the most recent volume could have used an article delving into how strategic culture, national identity, and perceptions of bilateral gaps that make identities potent weapons in Asian relationships are being addressed. A rich literature has emerged on aspects of Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and Russian identities and how they impact bilateral relations. Such a review process prior to the construction of an overview and blueprint for the articles in the coming year’s book could lead to a more shared, systematic framework to be applied by all contributors.

Comparisons of the separate articles are, at best, briefly noted, as part of the Tellis introductory framework. This approach does not make the most of the information and arguments conveyed in the subsequent articles. An alternative would be to add a comparative chapter written not as an afterthought but early enough for feedback to the authors, pressing them to add analysis aimed at sharpening the comparisons and improving the overall value of the volume. Comparisons over time would add to the value of cumulative scholarship in these volumes; indeed, a new volume in this series, perhaps summing up lessons from the sixteen volumes covering the era that, I argue above, is drawing to a close, could plug this gap, demonstrating how this rich trove of information, arranged chronologically, could be further mined for insights.

Another area that is not pursued as much as some would find warranted in books of this sort is interactive responses of a group of countries to a regional challenge that all of them face. Given the clear desire to cover the region broadly in each volume, the sub-regional nature of challenges might require the selection of two issues to be treated in a combined book. The North Korean challenge to regional stability and the future balance of power could be approached through the countries present in the Six-Party Talks. The challenges of integrating Central Asia, Mongolia, and the Russian Far East into a multilateral framework could then be approached with an overlapping set of states. The South China Sea or China’s Maritime Silk Road are other sub-regional themes, for which systematic and comparative analysis of the thinking in states most affected is warranted. Each of these topics would lend itself to separate chapters as well as to a concluding comparative study, complemented by views of the prospects of reconciling differences and resolving the shared challenge.

Different visions of regionalism are associated with the various grand strategies of the Indo-Pacific countries. When Donald Trump’s balance of multilateralism and unilateralism is clarified, presumably aimed at unchallenged US leadership, and Xi Jinping elaborates on his sinocentric approach as well as his response to Trump, the rival strategies for reorganizing the region will be easier to contrast. US allies do not subscribe to the same strategy and will be adjusting to what the two powers choose, opening the door to probing into such overtures as Abe’s pursuit of Putin and what may emerge as a renewal of Park’s “honeymoon” pursuit of Xi by the new president. This is but one more possibility for the model that has stood well over sixteen years.

Many analysts of the Indo-Pacific area have been inspired by the consistent quality and wealth of up-to-date insights in the Strategic Asia books. We have also been so influenced by this model of collaboration that, consciously or subconsciously, we have adapted it in our own endeavors. The most recent, well-focused volumes in the series add to the inspiration we should draw from a series on which so many rely. As we enter what appears to be a new era, we should be looking for opportunities to build on the existing foundation—both in this series and in alternative formats.