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International Politics in Northeast Asia: The China-Japan-United States Strategic Triangle

Authored by Dr. Thomas L. Wilborn.

March 21, 1996

57 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The United States has vital security and economic interests in Northeast Asia, one of the most dynamic regions of the world. This monograph focuses on the three bilateral relationships, those connecting China, Japan, and the United States to each other, which will dominate the future of the region.

Dr. Thomas Wilborn analyzes these relations, taking into account key issues involving Taiwan and North Korea, and offers insights regarding their future course. He also reviews U.S. engagement policy and assesses the value of U.S. military presence for regional stability.

Dr. Wilborn suggests that in the short range, Washington should avoid significant changes of policy. However, in the long range, the United States will have to establish machinery which provides ways for the major states, especially China and Japan, to assert greater initiative commensurate with their economic power, yet within a stable political context. Multilateral operational structures to supplement existing bilateral relations in Northeast Asia may provide a means for the United States to influence long-range trends and protect U.S. interests.


The major powers of Northeast Asia--those nations which can demand to be involved in all significant regional decisions--are China, Japan, and the United States. Russia may be able to claim that status in the future, but for a number of years Moscow will not have the political, economic, or military capabilities required.

The other actors in the region are North and South Korea and Taiwan. Like Russia, they are not insignificant powers which can be ignored. Indeed, if there is conflict in the region, it will probably begin because of actions taken in Taipei or the two Korean capitals. And the economies of South Korea and Taiwan make them valuable trading partners for the three major powers of the Northeast Asia Strategic Triangle.

The three bilateral relationships involving China, Japan, and the United States are the critical factors of Northeast Asian regional politics. They all are, and probably will remain into the 21st century, in flux.

• The U.S.-Japanese relationship is the most stable.

    -- Despite serious differences on trade issues, both nations support the international trading system and regional stability.
    -- The mutual commitment to democracy and market economics provides an ideological foundation for the alliance.
    -- The U.S.-Japan relationship is the most highly institutionalized, and the two nations have the highest degree of interdependence, of the three bilateral ties.
    -- Domestic political changes in either capital would be the most likely factor to disrupt the alliance.

• The Japan-China relationship is potentially volatile in the long term.

    -- Beijing and Tokyo share objectives related to trade and regional stability, especially in Korea.
    -- Long-term interests diverge with respect to Taiwan, the role of the United States, and Korea.
    -- Historic animosities reinforce tensions and complicate achieving accommodations.

• The least stable bilateral relationship of the Northeast Asian strategic triangle is between China and the United States.

    -- Economic benefits and the desire to avoid conflict are the strongest, but not necessarily sufficient, incentives for Beijing and Washington to maintain the relationship.
    -- Differences over Taiwan are the major obstacle to more comprehensive and beneficial cooperation.
    -- Profound ideological differences and perceptions of national interests will insure that there will be strains in the relationship for the foreseeable future.

• U.S. engagement is a necessary condition for regional stability.

• Washington's high priority on economics complicates the execution of foreign policy.

• U.S. domination of its bilateral relationships in Northeast Asia is no longer possible.

• Abrupt changes of U.S. policy, especially reductions in forward military presence, would undermine American security interests in the region.

• Improved coordination among government agencies, including military headquarters in the region, and better recruitment and utilization of regional specialists, will facilitate smooth execution of policy in Northeast Asia.

• For the long range, the United States should place greater emphasis on the creation of multilateral structures to supplement U.S. bilateral ties.

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